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P K Vasudeva: Don't abandon GM

The interim report of the Technical Expert Committee appointed by the SC for help in hearing a petition to ban genetically modified organism makes a lot of sense - except on three counts

P K Vasudeva 

Public opposition has been building up ever since the field trials of genetically modified (GM) food crops, like GM corn, of multinational seed companies had started in the public-sector research stations in various states, including Haryana. A set of organisations calling themselves the Alliance for GM Free Haryana met the state Agriculture Minister Paramvir Singh in September, and requested him to stop all open-air field trials in the state. In their submission they argued that there is growing scientific evidence on the negative impact of GM crops on human health and environment. Concerns were also raised that seed companies were taking control of the seed sector using their proprietary GM seeds, as in the case of Bt Cotton, the only commercially cultivated GM crop in India.

In August this year the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture comprising of 32 Members of Parliament, cutting across party lines, in its report on GM food crops recommended the “stopping of all field trials under any garb”.

Talking to farmers about these developments, Rajesh Krishnan, a campaigner for “sustainable agriculture” at Greenpeace India said, “It is unacceptable that after repeated recommendations from such credible agencies, both legislative and judicial, our government continues to permit open releases of GM crops in the country in the name of field trials”. He further stated, “Minister of Environment and Forests Jayanti Natarajan, under whom sits the nodal agency for open releases of GM crops, should immediately stop all open air releases of GM crops including field trials.”

The interim report of the Technical Expert Committee appointed by the Supreme Court for help in hearing a petition to ban genetically modified organism makes a lot of sense — except on three counts. These are: one, a blanket ban of 10 years on field trials of transgenic food crops; two, a blanket ban on field trials of transgenic varieties of those crops for which India is a centre of origin or diversity; and three, its presumption of a conflict of interest between regulatory and developmental roles.

The committee does well to point out several areas of deficiency in the way tests are carried out (for example, no studies comparing progeny with rodent parents that have been fed genetically-modified food) and supervised (for example, the regulatory body depends on visiting experts rather than full-time members whose sole job is to regulate and take responsibility for what they regulate). These are well taken. But a blanket ban of 10 years on field-testing is not only arbitrary, but also toxic for business, regulatory and field-testing research expertise.

GM is a new area of activity and trained manpower is in short supply. Only sustained demand can generate the manpower required to staff, without overlap, academic research, applied research and regulatory practice functions. Halting trials will drag down the process of creating the needed supply. This simply makes no sense. Similarly, India does not stop non-transgenic breeding of crops for which India is a centre of origin or diversity. There is no rationale for a different yardstick for GM crops. And to assume that regulation conflicts with development is to rule the insurance, pension and stock markets regulators all to be conflicted — they perform both functions. Small farm sizes are no excuse for bucking labelling; after all, India seeks to establish traceability in food.

How can any agricultural scientist do serious transgenic breeding without evaluating the agronomic performance of his candidate plant lines in open field conditions? The TEC wants a ten-year moratorium on such experiments, even if carried out in sites specially demarcated for the purpose. If all trials are to be performed only in contained laboratory or greenhouse conditions, it is as good as killing research.

India needs to press ahead with GM research, but with adequate regulation. Parliament must pass the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill fast, with prior public debate. The courts are ill equipped to rule on substantive science policy and food security, and should decline to hear such cases.

The TEC’s recommendation is not going to hurt the likes of Monsanto as much as the public-sector research institutions and domestic, private seed companies working on GM technologies. Indian farmers in over 10 million hectares are already planting Monsanto’s Bt cotton, including the seeds from its second-generation ‘Bollgard-II’ proprietary know-how.

Moreover, the American life sciences major’s cotton and maize hybrids, genetically engineered to ‘tolerate’ spraying of glyphosate-based herbicides, have completed open field trials in the kharif season just gone by. But on the other hand, a host of public sector transgenic products — a GM mustard hybrid from Delhi University’s Department of Genetics and a late blight disease-resistant potato developed by the Central Potato Research Institute near Shimla, among others — are awaiting regulatory approval for open field trials. If the TEC’s report is accepted, they will all have to wait for at least another 10 years!

Extending the precautionary principle to research is dangerous, particularly for a country that faces the challenge of feeding a rising population with growing incomes, amid diminishing land and water availability for farming. Molecular biology, genomics, marker-assisted selection or transgenic crops may not be magic bullets. But to shut these out, even as options, would be foolhardy.

Bt cotton acreage in India would not have gone up from virtually nothing to 11 million hectares since 2001 had farmers not seen some value in it — unless they were suffering from some kind of collective delusion year after year. They would, likewise, not want to be denied the option of using new technologies in other crops.

It is for India to decide whether to leave this entire field — not now, but ten years on — with multinational agri-biotech firms or promote competition through indigenous players as well. The latter, unfortunately, cannot wait that long.


The writer is author of World Trade Organisation: Its Implications on Indian Economy

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First Published: Sun, November 11 2012. 00:36 IST