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Interim solution

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

The conditional vacation by the last week of the eight month-old stay on conducting field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops prior to their release for commercial cultivation, serves a limited objective but stops short of resolving the contentious issue. The main fear of the petitioners who had objected to these trials was that alien genes incorporated into GM crops could escape from these fields to contaminate crops growing near-by. Since the toxicity and other health hazards of such genes were not fully known, such genetic contamination of food and other crops could have undesirable repercussions. From that viewpoint, the apex court has done well to put riders like a mandatory 200-metre isolation distance from neighbouring farmers' fields of similar crops, and better scientific supervision of GM trial fields. This should minimise the risk of unintended consequences.
That said, the court order is unlikely to satisfy the bioscience companies, both national and multinational, which have invested heavily in producing GM seeds specific to Indian conditions. For, the court has allowed the trials of only those GM crops for which the has already granted approval, and not for putting fresh GM crops into field trials. As such, a large number of other GM crops for which applications are pending with the GEAC will have to wait for some more time.
Another critical, as also controversial, facet of the verdict concerns disclosure in court of data on toxicity and other such traits of under-trial GM crops. This is a piece of information which many treat as a commercial secret, under trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPs). It may be worth recalling that insufficient experimental trial data protection was among the reasons cited by the US recently for keeping India on the watch list for intellectual property issues. This, therefore, is a much broader issue that needs to be addressed as it has implications for not only agri-biotechnology but also for other bioscience-based sectors, notably the pharmaceutical industry.
India, despite its large and fairly competent scientific manpower, is still a greenhorn in frontier technologies like molecular biology and biotechnology. As a result, Indian farmers have been denied adequate opportunities to raise production and reduce costs through GM crops. The farmers' keenness to adopt GM varieties is apparent from the pace at which Bt-cotton, the only GM crop on the approved list, has spread regardless of the allegations that companies were pricing GM seeds very high. Indeed, GM crops no longer need to be viewed as a luxury. They are a necessity, since conventional plant breeding has failed to end the yield stagnation in most crops. Of course, the bio-safety concerns raised by activists should get due consideration because these are not factors that profit-driven companies will worry enough about without external prodding; this is even more important when it comes to GM food crops, unlike a GM fibre crop like cotton. It is only when such concerns are properly addressed that GM crops will gain full acceptance and deliver their full potential.

First Published: Tue, May 15 2007. 00:00 IST