By authorising field trials for 15 more genetically modified (GM) food crops, India has signalled its intention of fast-tracking its use of GM technology. India has only the highly contested commercial precedent of Bt-cotton, a cash crop, to rely on when clearing field trials for major food crops like rice, wheat, brinjal, chickpea and mustard. Rather than be cautious by experimenting with soybean, corn and canola which offers oil and feed post-processing, biotech regulator Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee(GEAC) has cleared a rash of proposals for nearly 60 GM food crops in three meetings held since March.
Interestingly, for a year prior, an unofficial moratorium seemed to be at work, with the GEAC not meeting even once. In contrast to Jairam Ramesh and Jayanthi Natarajan who chose to err on the side of caution, their successor in the environment ministry Veerappa Moily had no such qualms in rebooting the GEAC meetings. This was despite a Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee and two reports by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture advocating a moratorium and castigating the absence of adequate regulatory structures, scientific expertise and rigorous scientific studies.
What gives credence to the contentions of activists opposed to GM crops is the government’s failure to set up a regulatory system free of conflicts of interest. In the present set-up, an internal bio-safety committee in biotech companies performs the basic assessments, evaluations and generates data on the company’s transgenic products. The Department of Biotechnology(DBT) which funds research into GM crops in both public and private sectors has an adjunct, the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation(RCGM), which analyses this data submitted by the companies before forwarding it to the GEAC for final clearances. Both the chairpersons of the GEAC are bureaucrats — the chair, an additional secretary in the environment ministry and the co-chair, a DBT official. The Parliamentary Standing Committee took objection to this structure that places implicit trust on the two stakeholders: the industry and the DBT besides privileging babus over scientists. The government’s failure to enact the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill and ensure statutory backing for the regulator before clearing so many field trials is problematic too.
While most states have rejected field trials on their soil, the agriculturally important states of Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh have allowed confined field trials. Several issues relating to insurance for crop failures, liability of promoter companies for ecological damage, toxicity tests on GM crops, antibiotic resistance, impact on native biodiversity and public health all remain unresolved. Such adhocism betrays a cavalier attitude to a sector that offers the promise of food security but remains enmeshed in a vicious cycle of mutual recriminations by governments, biotech corporations and activists. The controversial past of the industrial leader, Monsanto, and the government’s failure to make public the detailed minutes of GEAC meetings including dissensions, and the fears of hyper-commercialisation rendering agriculture unviable to the small farmer cloud the debate further. The Agriculture Standing Committee’s 59th report submitted in March questioned the government’s claims of farm incomes increasing on account of Bt cotton. Based on first-hand experience gained from farm visits, the Committee noted that only indebtedness and risks had risen and there was “ample proof to show that the miseries of farmers have compounded since the time they started cultivating Bt Cotton”. While no one can be against research that offers overwhelming benefits for the human race, the evidence in support of GM crops is, presently, scanty at best.