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Discretion is the only policy on GM crops

How safe is it to grow genetically modified, or GM, mustard on Indian farms? An answer to that requires a deep understanding of conflicting scientific views.

Nitin Sethi  |  New Delhi 

Discretion is the only policy on GM crops

How capable is the government in scientifically assessing the safety of GM mustard and other GM food crops on behalf of the citizens based on the available scientific knowledge? The answer to that can be concluded from stitching together facts from the past. Science has a rather minor role to play in it.

In 2010, the United Progressive Alliance, with environment minister Jairam Ramesh in the driver's seat, permitted dozens of trials of food crops while rather loudly stopping the commercial cultivation of one particular variety of GM brinjal through a unique process that was not used for any other crop.

Manmohan Singh, then prime minister, disagreed with him and along with then agriculture minister Sharad Pawar and biotechnology department called for a greater focus on GM crops. Still, the belief got perpetuated that research in GM crops had come to a halt.

Then Jayanthi Natarajan took over as environment minister in 2011. She opposed the trials and introduction of GM food crops on Indian farms. Even as she blocked environmental approvals for the same during her tenure, Singh over-ruled her, and ordered his government to take a completely contrasting view, of promoting GM food crops, before the Supreme Court.

A secret battle ensued within the UPA on government files with key political players of the regime occasionally indicating their personal preference on the issue (off or on the record) to the media in order to bend the public discourse to their liking.

In 2013, Veerappa Moily took over as environment minister and decided to immediately reverse the policy his predecessor followed and cleared a host of field trials for GM food crops.

If this chaos wasn't enough, in parallel, the government drafted the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill to replace the existing mechanisms and authorities of assessment, monitoring and regulation of GM technology.

Considering the UPA cabinet approved the BRAI, one would assume that the government of the day believed the existing system of approval was not up to the mark.

FIGHT OVER GM MUSTARD
Supporters
  • Increases productivity of mustard over existing varieties
  • GM canola is already imported and consumed in India
  • It can cross pollinate with non-GM varieties but that is a safe process
  • Opposition is ideologically against GM technology
Critics
  • Higher productivity comes from hybridisation and not from the GM input and is being compared to
    non-hybrid mustard varieties
  • Biosafety test results have not been shared in public
  • Most mustard growing states have objected to even trials of GM mustard
  • Cross pollination of GM variety with varieties grown in eastern India remains a threat
  • Has a trait of a terminator seeds – which could require farmers to buy seeds perennially

The bill had its own problems. For one, it put the control of the regulatory regime right under the thumb of the ministry meant to promote genetic technology. The bill languished.

The court case on the shape of the regulatory regime remained pending. The government accepted and advocated changes in the regulatory regime and yet pushed in the court for immediate clearances at its discretion through the existing appraisal system that it wanted scrapped.

The existing system continued to work opaquely and by government discretion. Doubts continued to be raised about the ability and willingness of the government to monitor the trials to ensure their results were scientifically robust and honest.

Stories of conflict of interest in the appraisal system continued to emerge. The appraisal mechanism did not engage anyone but the GM technology developers. Others were left to file RTIs for information or get updated when the decisions were taken and the government decided to put the papers out. Then the National Democratic Alliance came to power.

Carrying on UPA's legacy
It picked up exactly where the UPA had left off. The NDA did not clarify its stance on the existing regulatory mechanism or change it. Considering it did not revise the stance before the apex court, one was left to presume it continued to believe in the existing system and the discretionary controls it provided.

But soon even the perfunctory records of the appraisal system disappeared from the public domain. The meetings were held hidden from the public glare - with only the GM developer industry being aware of it besides government officials.

The chief information commissioner had already held that biosafety data held a greater public interest and should be made public. But the government did a turn-around and claimed it was private entities' data. Again, political and broad statements favouring 'science' emanated from one or the other corner of the government.

Allegations of conflict of interest in the regulatory system emerged yet again and the government ignored them. Then information leaked of the government being on the verge of clearing GM mustard for commercial cropping.

The public so far has had to depend on either the seed developers or on the anti-GM groups on the science of environmental and public safety of introducing GM mustard on Indian farms. Citizens ought to be in a position to trust the government to assess the case on the basis of sound science.

It's hard to do so when everyone except the business interests involved are kept in the dark about the workings of the government and the government contradicts itself repeatedly.

The discussion about safety of a product has yet again turned into a crude debate about people being pro- or anti-science. The appraisal system remains amenable to political direction. Its appraisal results can be over-ruled by the minister in charge.

The ministry has now suggested it will hold public hearings if necessary and call in those opposed to GM mustard as well. But these will happen at the discretion of the minister in the manner he deigns fit in response to the public pressure he may have felt from different ends.

This has made the anti-GM lobby get some hope and the pro-GM lobby grunt in frustration. Of course, the GM seed industry biggies too live, thrive or survive in the suspense that the discretionary governance system provides.

Science remains incidental in a regime where political discretion remains the only rule applied consistently.

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First Published: Tue, February 09 2016. 21:10 IST
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