Environment Minister Veerappa Moily’s decision to allow field trials of genetically modified food crops marks a major shift in official policy on a highly contentious issue. That he would make a departure from the stand adopted by his two immediate predecessors was clear from his replies to questions in Parliament: a week before the formal announcement, Mr. Moily told the Rajya Sabha that field trials were necessary to generate biosafety data, and a common affidavit covering various Ministries would be filed by the government in the Supreme Court, which is considering the issue of allowing trials. Governments the world over have been torn between passionate, unreasoning opposition from activists and the callous push and greed of seed companies. Since these modified plant species are of relatively recent origin, data on biosafety are still not accepted as conclusive or comprehensive. The question of their superiority over hybrids is also a matter of debate. From the farmers’ perspective, there is fear of commercial monopolies in agriculture — wherever GM crops are linked to intellectual property rights or commercial contracts, restrictions on use and the prospect of litigation come into play. This is an important dimension in India, which has a large number of small farms. Moreover, the GM foods industry claims transgenic plant varieties are safe on the one hand, but fiercely opposes labelling of products as such.
The UPA government has in its last days permitted field trials of GM food crops on the ground that there is no court injunction in force, but a transparent regulatory mechanism that is neither blindly obstructionist nor unduly permissive and which does not needlessly delay decisions needs to be put in place. The Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill, 2013 will lapse with the dissolution of the Lok Sabha even as the report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science, Technology and Environment on the legislation is awaited. Now that Lok Sabha elections are coming up, a decision on the future of GM foods will rest with a new government. At least 18 different varieties of GM crops including rice, wheat, maize, sugarcane and vegetables are officially in the pipeline. The key questions that must be answered while considering grant of permission for their production is their impact on health and the environment; the farming community must also be given a hearing. Scientific assessments must be independent of the proponents of GM agriculture, notably commercial entities. What this underscores is the importance of instituting a regulatory mechanism before permission is granted for work outside laboratories. It is equally vital that in a country with a diverse agricultural heritage, traditional seed varieties are not wiped out by monoculture.