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Surinder Sud: Foreign fears, Indian tears

The indecision over field trials of GM crops is hurting public sector organisations and state agricultural universities too

Surinder Sud 

Surinder Sud

The lingering uncertainty over the field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops is tacitly hurting the government. That is because a large number of GM seeds held up because of the indecision on field trials have been created by public sector organisations and state agricultural universities with government funding. These investments are set to go waste because seeds tend to lose their vitality with time. At least 16 Bt brinjal varieties evolved by different public sector bodies have already lost their fecundity.

Besides, numerous other research projects meant to incorporate need-driven traits into crops have either been suspended or abandoned, frittering away the investments that have gone into them. The GM crops that are in various stages of development but may not fructify include some mass-consumed vegetables, oilseeds and cereals - cauliflower, cabbage, potato, tomato, mustard, wheat and rice. The GM rice varieties fortified with vitamin A and iron are also at stake.

This apart, the delay in decision on GM testing will increase the cost of biotechnology projects. Public sector organisations, which normally have limited budgets, will be particularly hit on this account. The Delhi University's GM mustard hybrid production programme is already feeling the pinch of the high cost of regulatory approvals.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated bodies, which are lobbying against GM crops for fear that multinational seed companies will capture the Indian market, do not realise that their action may actually boomerang and help these business houses. Such a ban will prevent public sector organisations from offering indigenously produced GM seeds to compete with those of foreign firms, thus, giving a free run to the seeds of foreign companies. Multinationals will manage to shift their research bases to other countries to develop and sell their products there.

GM mustard is a revealing case in point. It was developed in India but denied permission for commercial cultivation. However, it is now being gainfully grown by farmers in Bangladesh to slash their production costs, reduce wastage due to pest attack and earn good profits. Going by the information gathered by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), Bangladeshi Bt brinjal growers are reaping a handsome net benefit of local Taka 50,000 to 60,000 (equivalent to $650-750) per bigha. Indian brinjal farmers have been deprived of such gains thanks to the ill-advised moratorium on Bt brinjal.

A major cause for the current logjam on the GM issue is the politicisation of regulatory system. The authority of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) to regulate the biotechnology sector has been diluted, with its powers being either usurped by the environment minister or delegated to states. The character of the GEAC has been changed from a GM product "approval" body to merely an "appraisal" entity, by replacing the term "approval" with "appraisal" in its name. It has, thus, been stripped of the powers to allow the release of GM varieties. Going a step further, its role in appraising the GM products, too, has been rendered more or less meaningless by not allowing the field testing of GM crops.

"Prior permission of states, which has been made mandatory for field trials or approval of GM crops, is contrary to the provisions laid down under the rules of the Environment Protection Act notified in 1989," says ISAAA's South Asia Centre Director Bhagirath Choudhary. He points out that the subject of environment falls in the Centre's domain under the Constitution's "concurrent list". The states have been assigned little role in deciding on the environment fallout and biosafety of GM products. However, while for most development projects, the states need to seek environmental clearances from the Centre, for GM trials, the Centre looks towards the states for approval. This has given the states virtual veto powers to overrule the Centre's decision.

Therefore, there is an urgent need to put in place an autonomous, fully-empowered and politics-immune regulatory system for the biotechnology sector. The new system should enjoy the confidence of both the supporters and opponents of GM technology. Whether this is done by passing the long-pending Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill or suitably reconstituting and strengthening the GEAC, is up to the government to decide.

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First Published: Mon, August 25 2014. 21:48 IST