Freeze GM crops, say experts
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 07 Sep 2013 3 Comments
On August 8, over 2000 farmers and representatives of farmers unions, 18 MPs and numerous civil society representatives gathered in New Delhi to call for a scrapping of the draconian Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill recently tabled in Parliament by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST). The current regulation of genetically modified (GM) crops has faced criticism from many quarters. In July, the Supreme Court appointed Technical Expert Committee (TEC), in response to a public interest litigation (PIL), came down heavily upon on the current regulatory mechanism and advised against any further open field trials of GM crops until the serious lapses were rectified.


When the final report of the panel of experts set up by the Supreme Court to advise it on the state of regulation and testing GM crops in the country was made public on July 22, reactions were varied. While opponents of GM crops welcomed the “sagacious recommendations” and urged the Prime Minister to accept the report, the biotechnology industry termed it “a regressive, biased and troubled treatise, anti-science, anti-research and anti-farmer”. It is in this context that one has to critically examine what the experts had to say.  


The Supreme Court set up in May 2012 a six-member committee of reputed scientists – one dropped out – to look into the TEC report. The court had asked the TEC to scrutinise the modalities of GM crop testing in India to assess whether the regulatory measures were adequate to prevent potential risks to the environment. In the interim TEC report, a ten year moratorium on open field trials of all GM food crops directly consumed by Indians was suggested. 


Consequently, all hell broke loose. At a Supreme Court hearing in November 2012 to consider the report, the Association of Biotech Led Enterprise – Agriculture Group (ABLE-AG) had sternly objected to the contents of the report, as did the Ministry of Agriculture, which filed an affidavit claiming that the report was “unscientific and that it was beyond the terms of reference (TOR) set by the court”.  


On the industry’s prodding, the court agreed to fill the vacancy by a former Director General of ICAR, whose candidature was also proposed by the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, curiously enough, which had also opposed the TEC interim report. It is pertinent to note in this context that this person is the Executive Secretary of Asia Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions and of one its programmes, Asia-Pacific Consortium of Agricultural Biotechnology (APCOAB), which actively promotes GM technology.


The TEC report, submitted on June 30, was endorsed by eminent scientists, a Plant development biologist at the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, an emeritus Professor of environmental sciences at the JNU, Delhi, a former BARC scientist noted for his work on genetic toxicology and radiation genetics, an expert on genetic toxicology, earlier with the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research, Lucknow.   


The scientists called for total ban on herbicide tolerant (HT) crops, currently peddled by Monsanto. In HT crops, a single broad spectrum herbicide, usually glyphosate, is used to destroy weeds leaving main crop, since it is genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide. Monsanto’s “Round Up Ready Soyban” is an example, where Round Up is the glyphosate based herbicide. Mike Adams, Editor, Nature News, USA, writes “The glyphosate resistant wheat is creating an environmental apocalypse and its devastating effect on environment will be seen not in the very distant future, but, soon enough”. TEC report notes “HT crops would most likely exert a highly adverse impact over time on sustainable agriculture, rural livelihoods, and environment. TEC finds them completely unsuitable in the Indian context”.   


TEC’s comments on biosafety protocol are telling. “In several cases, reporting of data as well as methods and analysis, has been incomplete and cursory; there are also deficiencies in selection of samples, methods of analysis, and statistical tests, making it difficult to draw meaningful conclusions… the number of such cases that have come to the notice of the TEC also reflect on the manner in which the toxicology data has been examined and the regulatory body for having accepted the reports”.  


This decision stemmed from an examination of the safety dossiers put together by crop developers and approved by the regulator, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, (GEAC). Severely indicting the procedures adopted, TEC found “the deficiencies are serious enough that several of the dossiers are unlikely to meet international guidelines”.  


On a parallel note, I must add this was also the observation of the Supreme Court mandated Independent Expert Committee, constituted in October 2009, which I had the privilege to head as Chairman, to look into the data on Bt brinjal provided by Mahyco, Indian subsidiary of Monsanto. The statistical methodology, data on toxicology, safety protocol, etc., were totally unacceptable to the committee.


The other very important recommendation of TEC is that release of GM crops for which India is the centre of origin or diversity should not be allowed. Brinjal comes under this category.  Hence, what Monsanto has tried under Mahyco is totally unacceptable.


It now transpires that the sixth member’s (referred above) observations are silent on both the HT and centre of origin question. He pleads for a greater involvement of ICAR and National Agricultural Research System (NARS) in field testing. This is a tacit approach to lend credibility from established public-funded governmental agencies to support the interests of private crop developers. However, since he has referred to the inclusive and proactive role of the Ministry of Agriculture, it would be worthwhile to examine its stand on the subject.  


A virtual war of words between Ms Jayanti Natarajan, Minister of Environment and Forests and Mr Sharad Pawar, Minister of Agriculture, has recently erupted on the issue. Natarajan’s views on GM crops are diagonally opposite to those of Pawar. In a letter addressed to Pawar, she said, “The scientific community is in fact split vertically down the centre in its views on these issues, and robust, proven, fail-safe scientific protocols to prevent damage from GM crops are yet to be developed in our country”.


She has written to the Prime Minister, though the PMO did not permit her to take a stance different from that of the Agriculture Ministry. It is against the background of these developments that one should critically evaluate the recent selection of Monsanto for the World Food Prize, facilitated by a leading Indian agricultural scientist in Washington. Is this a covert effort to lend credibility to Monsanto and GM crops? Concerned Indian citizens demand an answer.       

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