The potentially lethal effects of GM crops require that there should be no secrecy around the regulatory processes that will govern them

Newspaper reports have confirmed the recent decision of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests to “put on hold” the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee’s (GEAC) permitting of field trials of genetically modified crops such as rice, wheat, maize, castor and cotton. The decision to put on hold all approvals — including those granted by the committee — has been taken in view of ongoing public interest litigation before the Supreme Court on the bio-safety of field trials of GM crops.

The functioning of the regulatory regime for genetically modified organisms (GMO) in India throws up many difficult questions, not least among them, how to ensure effective transparency.

Though transparency in the functioning of any regulatory agency is critical, there are additional complications when it comes to GMOs. A regulator who is supervising the distribution of spectrum, or the functioning of the telephone industry, or one who is regulating the quality of a consumer product, can always recant, call back the product, reallocate spectrum, and set right any errors that might have been committed. However, with GMOs, there can be no recall once they have been “let loose” in the ecosystem. Mistakes relating to GMOs could have lethal and irreversible consequences on our health and the environment.

It is, therefore, important that the regulatory processes related to GMOs are scientifically rigorous, free of political or financial bias, without conflict of interest, and subject to vigorous public scrutiny.

Moratorium

Unfortunately, the current system for regulating the introduction of GMOs in India has been adjudged to be very unsatisfactory. A Technical Expert Committee (TEC) set up by the Supreme Court, submitted its interim report dated October 7, 2012. It recommended the suspension of all GMO field trials until, inter alia, a panel of scientists, qualified in evaluation of the biosafety data of GM crops, has been engaged for the scrutiny and analysis of the same, and the conflict of interest in the regulatory body has been removed. “Based on the current overall status of food safety evaluation of Bt transgenics, including the data on Bt cotton and Bt brinjal examined by the TEC and in accordance with the precautionary principle,” the TEC has recommended “a ten year moratorium on field trials of Bt transgenics in all food crops (those used directly for human consumption).”

Toxicity

These findings were reportedly disputed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and by some others — what else could have been expected? At their insistence, the TEC has been given an additional member and asked to submit its final report to the Supreme Court. Whatever be the end result, the TEC’s devastating findings in the interim report cannot be wished away. Therefore, given the poor scientific rigour, the prevailing conflicts of interest, and inappropriate processes, it is all the more essential that everything must be open and subject to full public scrutiny.

Based on an appeal by Greenpeace to the Central Information Commission (CIC), asking for information from the Department of Biotechnology and the GEAC, on the toxicity and allergenicity of products being allowed to proceed to field trials, the CIC, while allowing the appeal, has held that “it goes without saying that toxicity and allergenicity of any product to be put on large scale field trial is a matter of overriding public interest.”

Thereby, the CIC had effectively rejected the plea of Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco), the third party supplying such information, that the same should not be given out as it involves commercial confidence and trade secrets protected under Section 8(1)(d) of the RTI Act. The CIC rightly pointed out that under the RTI Act, this protection was inoperative when “larger public interest” warrants disclosure.

These developments suggested that even while the official regulatory processes left much to be desired, at least the public was in a position to monitor the situation on its own and challenge any unscientific, biased, or reckless decisions of regulators. Therefore, imagine the rage and horror of the common Indian when she discovered that Section 28(1) of the recently introduced Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill, 2013 proposes to remove information relating to GMOs from under the purview of the RTI Act.

As a State subject

Though there are many other reasons for which this Bill must be condemned, surely this effort to shroud all GMO-related information in secrecy must be the most condemnable and dangerous. Considering the Supreme Court has more than once held that the right to information is a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution, and considering all legitimate exemptions and exclusions have been listed by Parliament in Section 8(1) of the RTI Act, such efforts to circumvent the law must at the very least be considered unconstitutional and should be opposed at all levels.

It would be surprising if any of the political parties (apart from the ruling party at the Centre) would like to support this Bill. Apart from its attempt to weasel out from under the RTI Act, as far as GMOs are concerned, Section 35 of the BRAI Bill appears to reduce State governments to a mere advisory role, despite agriculture being a State subject. In fact, given the critical hazards associated with GMOs, both to human health and the environment, and the poor state of the regulatory mechanism, each State ought to have been vested with veto power as to the introduction of GMOs. For, once a GMO is introduced, wittingly or unwittingly, it is impossible to ensure that it does not spread far and wide; it certainly is no respecter of State boundaries.

All in all, this is a disaster of a Bill that must be resolutely opposed.

(Shekhar Singh is an RTI and environmental activist.)

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