Opposes Pawar’s views favouring GM crops, wants field trials put on hold till regulator is established

Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jayanthi Natarajan has asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to let her ministry take an independent view on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the Supreme Court, which is hearing a public interest litigation petition.

She has opposed Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar’s views in favour of these organisms, which have so far dictated the government’s arguments in the case.

In a letter to Dr. Singh, she said the Agriculture Ministry’s mandate was to promote GM crops; in contrast, her ministry’s role was to regulate their use. So, it should have an independent view. She also asked that field trials of GM crops be kept in abeyance till Parliament passed the Bill to establish the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India. Her letter was sent days before the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee submitted its final report, which recommended a moratorium on the field trials of select GM crops till the regulatory mechanism was reformed. The government’s case has so far been rooted in a joint position taken by the two ministries, an arrangement which the PMO facilitated, asking the ministries not to take a contradictory view.

The government consequently opposed the Technical Expert Committee’s interim report, which recommended a 10-year moratorium on the field trials of select GM crops and come out in support of the deployment of GM technology. The government also asked for a nominee of the Agriculture Ministry to be represented on the committee. R.S. Paroda, who was taken into the panel as the Agriculture Ministry’s representative, has not signed the final report.

But Ms. Natarajan’s plea has explicitly laid out her opposition to the views of Mr. Sharad Pawar and the GM crop developer industry, which lobbied for clearances for field trials during the Kharif 2013 cropping cycle, pre-empting a decision by the Supreme Court.

Earlier, Ms. Natarajan put on hold the clearances given by her ministry’s statutory technical body, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), citing the ongoing case in the Supreme Court. This led Mr. Pawar to write to the Prime Minister, asking for Ms. Natarajan’s order to be reversed, arguing that withholding the clearances would jeopardise food security and lower the morale of scientists working on GM technology. He noted that he had also written to several States that opposed or banned the field trials of GM crops, asking them to change their decision. Dr. Singh marked Mr. Pawar’s letter to Ms. Natarajan for her views.

In her reply, Ms. Natarajan said: “The scientific community is, in fact, split vertically down the centre in its views on these issues, and robust, proven failsafe scientific protocols to prevent damage from GM crops are yet to be developed in our country.”

“It is also appreciated that the regulatory mechanism for GMOs, including food crops, in our country is still evolving… I feel that until the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India is in place, it would be prudent for us to proceed cautiously,” she said.

Ms. Natarajan also disagreed with Mr. Pawar’s view that immediate clearance for trials was necessary for food security as well as the morale of scientists. “Food security is not a function alone of food production and crop yield growth but also about poverty/development and access to food etc.”

Citing the example of the increased agricultural productivity in the eastern States, she said there was need to increase food security through less controversial, and better-tested, technologies.

In contrast to Mr. Pawar’s position, Ms. Natarajan warned that as the GM technology could impact millions of farmers and alter food supply chains permanently, the government must take an “extremely well calibrated and judicious approach.” Warning that India was the centre of origin for some of the 53 GM crops awaiting clearance, she said: “The decision on adoption and consequent commercialisation of these new technologies must be done on the basis of [a] sound scientific and social review. This review must assess not only the risks associated with the use of the technologies but also the social costs and benefits that would be borne if the government is to take those risks on behalf of the citizens.”

“It is widely accepted that the question about the safety, efficacy and value of the said technologies to ensure greater food security…, benefitting farmers and safeguarding public health and biodiversity in India is not adequately settled,” she said.

Countering the charge of political interference in the technical decision taken by the GEAC, she said: “It is not only the prerogative but the duty of the Ministry of Environment and Forests to evaluate the larger risks and social parameters of adoption of the new technology. A positive evaluation has to be based on adequate evidence that the adoption or commercialisation of these technologies remains with the safe parameters of the precautionary principle.”

The PMO has not yet responded to her letter or permitted her to take a stance different from that of the Agriculture Ministry.

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