Business Standard

Transparency overdue

GM mustard fracas shows need for better regulation

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Business Standard Editorial Comment New Delhi
Amidst protests by the detractors of genetically modified (GM) crops, the country's biotech regulator, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), has chosen the safe course of deferring a decision on allowing commercial cultivation of GM mustard. It has, thus, neither displeased the highly vocal anti-GM lobby nor dashed the hopes of those scientists who view GM technology as a key solution for some of the daunting challenges before Indian agriculture. Environment minister Prakash Javadekar's announcement after the GEAC's decision that the government would not stop science and nor would it force GM crops on anybody also seems part of the same game plan.

Questions about GM mustard - DMH-11 (Dhara Mustard Hybrid 11), developed at Delhi University and partly funded by the National Dairy Development Board - are guided basically by two considerations. The first is an ideological opposition to tweaking the genetic makeup of crop plants, especially through the introduction of alien genes. The expressed fear is that this would adversely affect biodiversity as well as human and animal health. A similar outcry was raised against gene-altered Bt-brinjal in 2009; this led to the imposition of a moratorium on its field trials. But there is little evidence so far to validate these perceived dangers. GM brinjal has since been approved and grown in neighbouring Bangladesh without causing any environmental or health hazards. The experience with growing Bt-cotton in India for the past 13 years is no different. It now covers over 95 per cent of cotton acreage; and its products, including cotton seed oil and oil meal, are consumed by human beings and livestock without any visible dangerous effects being seen so far.

The second - and more valid - ground for opposing GM mustard is the opaque functioning of the GEAC. Neither the records of its meetings nor data concerning safety trials of GM seeds have been made public. Transparency is crucial for public and scientific confidence in the GEAC's decision-making process. The fact that GM mustard has been developed in the public sector with public funds makes it all the more obligatory for the GEAC to be transparent. If found safe, GM mustard has much to offer. India is hugely deficient in edible oils; over 60 per cent of its requirement is imported. It is claimed that GM mustard has yields that are 25-30 per cent higher than the best current varieties, which will help close the demand-supply gap. Clearly, there is a need for an autonomous, science-focused and transparent biotechnology regulator, which could take incontrovertible decisions. Unfortunately, past efforts to create such a body have struggled. The bills providing for setting up the Biotechnology Authority of India have been introduced in Parliament thrice - each time, they were allowed to lapse without putting them up for discussion and approval. They broadly envisaged a multi-winged regulatory structure to deal with diverse sectors, including agriculture and pharmaceuticals. Any necessary amendments could and should have been made by Parliament. It is high time that the process of putting in place such an autonomous regulator, insulated against pulls and pressures, was taken forward. Otherwise, controversies over approval of biotechnology products will recur.

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First Published: Feb 09 2016 | 9:39 PM IST

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