The government’s attempts to get the Environment Ministry to support field trials have failed

The government’s attempts to persuade the Environment Ministry to accept the Agriculture, and Science and Technology Ministries’ views in favour of immediately going ahead with field trials of genetically modified (GM) food crops have failed so far.

The government was to respond to reports filed by the Technical Expert Committee and one of its dissenting members before the Supreme Court in an ongoing case and it was decided by the Prime Minister’s Office that a “harmonised” common stance would be presented to the courts.

But the attempt at the level of the Cabinet Secretary to forge such a common stance in favour of permitting field trials of GM food crops, which is being advocated by the Agriculture and Science ministries, along with the biotech industry, faced the reality of diametrically opposite views prevailing in the government.

The former Environment Minister, Jayanthi Natarajan, had put her opposition to GM food crop trials on record.

The Hindu accessed the draft affidavit prepared by the committee of secretaries led by the Cabinet Secretary in favour of immediate opening of field trials of GM food crops. In meetings held over months, the committee of secretaries, including secretaries from the Agriculture Ministry, Department of Biotechnology and others, tried to push through this version. But the Environment secretary stood his ground upon instructions of the then Environment Minister.

The Environment secretary recommended that safeguards such as public hearings and consent of State governments be put in place before going ahead with the trials. He also advised site specific safeguards and risk assessment guidelines as part of the reforms.

The Minister on her part noted that she had told the Prime Minister of her opposition to the trials and preferred to file a separate affidavit on behalf of her Ministry rather than go with the widely different views of the Ministry of Agriculture and others which are ‘promoting’ ministries.

If the government was to now forge a common stance overruling her opposition it should be done at the level of the Prime Minister or the Union Cabinet and not be dictated by a committee of secretaries, Ms. Natarajan said, noting that if a common affidavit was what the government wanted it had to take in to account the Parliamentary Standing Committee’s opposition to such trials as well as the opposition from many State governments. The Environment secretary conveyed the decision but the committee headed by the Cabinet Secretary continued to push for a “common” affidavit.

In an attempt to forge a ‘common ground’, the committee did try to tone down its harsh attack against the Technical Expert Committee of the Supreme Court, which had advocated a moratorium on field trials till a new regulatory regime is put in place. But even while agreeing to some of the regulatory reforms that the TEC recommended, the committee, in its revised position, continued to demand an immediate clearance for field trials without awaiting either the passing of the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill, which is now pending in the Parliament, or other regulatory reforms. It instead leaned almost entirely in favour of the dissenting report of R.S. Paroda, former director general of Indian Council of Agriculture Research, who was put on the TEC after the government complained of lack of balance in the panel. Mr. Paroda in his dissenting report favoured going-ahead with field trials and not awaiting regulatory reforms.

In the same case before Supreme Court, the Agriculture Ministry had earlier presented its views separately and the Environment Ministry stayed out of the litigation owing to its radically different views.

The current Environment Minister M. Veerappa Moily is yet to take a view on the matter but would have to now do a complete turn around on his Ministry and predecessor’s decisions if he wishes to go ahead with the field trials.

Responding to a query on the conflict within the government, Kavitha Kuruganti, member of the Coalition for a GM-Free India, said: “The issue is related to bio-safety and other risks; that is what the case is about. The mandate and responsibility for protecting and upholding bio-safety is with the MoEF. They should be responding in the Court. Ministry of Agriculture represents conflict of interest; it is a promotional body, not regulatory. There is no single rational reason why India should walk into field trials without addressing some basic issues raised by the majority TEC report of independent scientists.”

But, Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises — Agriculture Group (ABLE-AG) argued it did not make sense to hold back field trials at the moment even as the Bill is before Parliament. States and the Central government had adequate systems for supervision and monitoring in place, it said. “There should be only one view of the government on the matter. There are no worries about confined field trials. Regulatory process should also evolve with introduction of new technologies. No question of environment safety is involved in the field trials right now,” ABLE-AG executive director N. Seetharama said.