The Indian voter has no confidence in GM crops or its regulator

Tuesday, 4 March 2014 - 5:09pm IST | Agency: DNA
The need of the hour is a regulator that is independent, transparent, inclusive and that protects biosafety before the environmental release of GM crops.

Over the last few months, Veerappa Moily has proved to be a minister in a hurry, desperately attempting to field an industry friendly face ahead of the general elections. While one can be hopeful that the spree of clearances will be halted soon, as elections will be announced anytime next week, the truth is that the damage has already been done. 

Moily contradicts his predecessors
Moily’s short stint in the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has been a contradiction to the precedence set by the Congress-led UPA government. It is tragic that the hurried clearance has pitted environment protection against corporate interests, despite the face of the Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, stressing the need for inclusive growth. Similarly, it has been widely reported that the minister has given a green signal to the approval of open field trials of Genetically Modified (GM) crops overturning the position of his predecessors Jairam Ramesh and Jayanthi Natrajan, and ignoring the concerns they had raised in the past.

Both ex-environment ministers Ramesh and Natrajan invoked the precautionary approach which is based on sound science. On the one hand, in 2010, Jairam Ramesh declared an infinite moratorium on BT Brinjal after a nation-wide debate on its approval by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), India’s apex regulatory authority for GM crops. Ramesh intervened for good reason, as the GEAC’s decision to approve India’s first GM food crop could have implications to national policy. 

Jairam Ramesh came to the conclusion, which he believed was responsible to science and responsive to society. On the other hand, Jayanthi Natrajan, who took control of the Ministry after Jairam, had put on hold the clearances of open GM field trials for cotton, rice, maize and wheat given by the GEAC. It only made sense she took this decision as there is an ongoing case in the Supreme Court which is yet to make a decision on a public interest litigation (PIL) related to the environmental release of GMOs. And the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) set up by the Supreme Court in this context has in their final report submitted on 30 June 2013,pointed to the scientific evidences for adverse impacts of GM crops and the inefficiencies in the current regulatory system.

Unfortunately, Moily completely neglected the standards set by his predecessors and ignored all shortcomings of the GEAC. He has been further supported by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh through his recent speech at the 101st Scientific Congress. The PM, like Moily, has turned a blind eye to growing scientific evidences against the safety of GM crops to human/animal health, environment and farmer livelihoods. In fact Moily’s green signal to approving GM crop field trials has boosted Monsanto India’s shares by 17%.  Can one infer that the government is definitely going to choose the multinationals over the interest of the aam aadmi?

GEAC no good to regulate GM crops
What is clear from over a decade of debate on GM crops in the country is that science is divided on the safety of GM crops and the GEAC is no good to regulate this controversial and risky technology in our food and farming. This has been strongly suggested in the final report of the Supreme Court-appointed TEC as well as by the Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) on agriculture in their report “Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops – Prospects and Effects” submitted to Parliament on 9 August, 2012.

The GEAC has been a rubber stamp of proponents of GM technology and that has been evident in the haphazard approvals given by the regulator in the absence of complete bio-safety information, the way in which information has been examined and the conclusions accepted by the GEAC, as pointed out by the TEC in their final report. There are some crucial elements like stakeholder participation, socio-economic assessments, chronic toxicity testing, trans-generational testing and post release monitoring which are missing from the risk assessment of the current regulatory mechanism. 

Further strengthening the concerns on the current regulatory system was the report by the Prof Sopory Committee that investigated the BT Bikaneri Narma cotton case and provides evidence around the inability, incapability and unpreparedness of the Indian GM research establishment and the incompetency of our regulator to deal with this unpredictable and uncontrollable technology. It is a shame that the BT Bikaneri Narma contamination by the Monsanto gene took place before commercialisation but went undetected by the regulatory system. This incident is also strong evidence that contamination from GM crops is inevitable and that our regulator does not have the capacity to deal with it.

Keeping in mind that this is the very same regulator that had approved BT Brinjal for commercialisation, a decision which was reversed by the then environment minister! It is evident from the resistance to GM crops that citizens have no confidence in this technology and the lacunae in the regulatory framework further adds to their worries.

Lapse of the BRAI bill is evidence of rejection of GM crops
The growing opposition to GM crops is evident in the country and the most recent was the lapsing of the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill with the end of the term of the 15th Lok Sabha. Despite all the efforts of the biotech industry and Department of Biotechnology that championed the bill, this single window clearance mechanism for GM crops was defeated by people, parliamentarians across party lines as well as the four state governments of Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Chattisgarh and Odisha, who opposed the BRAI Bill to the very end. 

There are many lessons that policy makers need to learn from the GM debate in India, but one that is most important is the need for a regulator that is independent, transparent, inclusive and that protects biosafety, before the environmental release of GM crops which also includes field trials. The GEAC and BRAI definitely do not fit this bill.

Indians have definitely cast their vote for their right to safe food and have no confidence in the GM technology or its Indian regulator. Political parties cannot ignore this anymore and need to show their commitment towards a Biosafety Protection Regime and as we approach yet another election.

 

Neha Saigal is Senior Campaigner, Food & Agriculture, Greenpeace India.


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