The debate on the pros and cons of genetically engineered/modified crops is universal. In India, in the face of vociferous protests, the controversy has only deepened leading to a moratorium on cultivation of Bt Brinjal crop — the first GM food crop sought to be commercialised. Gargi Parsai spoke to Basudeb Acharia, Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture, on its new report, “Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops — Prospects and Effects.”

The government asserts that GM crops are essential for food security of India’s growing population. What is your take?

GM is not the panacea. We have 2,200 varieties of Brinjal. If we allow GM Brinjal, all our varieties will get contaminated and vanish as has happened in cotton. When the committee members visited Yavatmal in Vidarbha, we asked farmers why they were growing Bt cotton if the input costs were high and profits were low. They said they had no other option as alternate seeds were no longer available.

Initially a 450 gm packet of Monsanto’s Bt cotton seeds was sold at Rs 1,700. Then after the Andhra Pradesh government challenged this in court, it was brought down to Rs.750 per packet but the royalty of Rs.250 per packet is paid to Monsanto that developed the seed. Last year, a packet was sold between Rs.1,200 to Rs.2,000 because of the monopoly of this private seed company. An artificial scarcity was created and the price was hiked. This will happen in Bt brinjal too if it is allowed.

If our quest is for food security then why must we select this technology which has nothing to do with food security? The only motive behind this is profit for the seed companies.

What are the major recommendations of your committee?

We have said that the government must not allow field trials of GM crops till there is a strong, revamped, multi-disciplinary regulatory system in place. We studied the regulatory system in different countries and found that the one in Norway was the best.

We have recommended a thorough probe into the permission given to commercialisation of Bt Brinjal right from the beginning till a moratorium was imposed in 2010. Also that there should be examination of research reports and assessment by independent scientists of Bt Brinjal by an agency other than the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), which gave approval on its own assessment, to avoid conflict of interest.

The panel recommended re-evaluation of all research findings in Bt cotton seeds in the light of studies that highlighted inexplicable changes in the organs and tissues of Bt-cotton seed-fed lambs.

Having noticed several shortcomings in the functioning, composition, powers and mandate of GEAC and the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) in their regulatory role, we have recommended to our sister committees on Science and Technology and Environment and Forests to do a comprehensive examination and report to Parliament.

There should be mandatory labelling of products from GM crops, unchecked import of GM products should be stopped and we have suggested that alternate organic farming should be encouraged, for which, as of now, there is no government support. An explanation has been sought from the Department of Consumer Affairs as to why no examination was done of the lakhs of tonnes of Bt cotton seed oil extracted from Bt cotton that has entered the food chain.

What are the chief concerns?

GM technology cannot be the monopoly of one company, as in Bt cotton. The benefits that were assured from Bt cotton cultivation are not coming because new pests have appeared. Farmers have to use more pesticide and chemical fertilizers, as a result of which there has been an increase in input costs and reduction in profit margins leading to farmer’s indebtedness and suicides.

Does it worry you that GM foods can enter the country without checks? Only if the exporter or the importer makes a declaration will authorities know that GM products are entering the country.

That is the weakness in law. There is only a Food Lab in Kolkata under the Ministry of Health and which is not well-equipped. The new Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is supposed to do it. The government must enact a legislation to protect the rights of consumers. Today, consumers have no rights and no means to know which imported food contains GM. There should be compulsory testing and labelling of GM food entering the country.

Now that the report is out, what do you expect the government to do?

The moratorium on Bt Brinjal should continue. All field trials of GM crops should discontinue. They should only be done in confined area in labs, the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill should be reviewed so that there is no conflict of interest as the promotion of biotech and regulation cannot be under one body. You cannot compare with the United States as in India, 80 to 82 per farmers are small and marginal.

Why do you think the government is allowing this?

Because of pressure from the United States. Because since 1991, the government is pursuing neo-liberal economic policies — all are inter-related. You will find the difference in the agrarian crisis in the pre-1991 and post-1991 period. Suicides of farmers started from 1996-97. Before that there were isolated incidents. Just as it is now — there is pressure from the U.S. on India to allow 51 per cent FDI in multi-brand retail trade so that Walmart can come.

The industry-based Association of Biotech-led Enterprises-Agriculture Group (ABLE-AG) has said implementation of your panel’s recommendations will hit farm growth.

I do not agree. We were producing 52 million tonnes in 1950-51 and are today producing 257 million tonnes without using GM technology. If we have increased to such an extent, where is the need for GM technology? From a food importing country we are now exporting, though it is also a fact that a large number of population is not fed, whereas godowns are full.

We are not against new technology in the farm sector but it should be in the interest of farmers without undermining the rights of consumers. As of now it is more inclined towards industry without the accompanying safeguards, regulation and monitoring on pricing, monopoly, seed sovereignty and biodiversity.

How was unanimity achieved on this sensitive subject among the 31 committee members representing different political parties and ideologies?

We wanted to make an objective report. We invited those in favour of GM crops including Monsanto and those who were not. We visited five States including Maharashtra, Goa, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. We examined 18,000 documents 1,000 memoranda and 56 witnesses. The panel members met 100 farmers’ widows and heard from lakhs of farmers their plight in each State. The arguments of those against were stronger. That is why the entire committee is unanimous. There was not a single amendment or dissent.