Field trials for ten varieties of GM (genetically modified) food and other crops were revalidated by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the statutory appraisal arm of the Environment Ministry. These included field trials for rice, wheat, maize, cotton and sorghum.
Companies applied for revalidation after their earlier permits lapsed following opposition from States. The revalidations would have to be first approved by the Union Environment and Forests Minister and then the promoter companies would have to go back to the States for a final nod as agriculture is a State subject under constitutional provisions.
The committee, sources said, did not clear any fresh proposals at this meeting and is likely to take up the new cases in the last week of April. There are nearly 50 applications pending before the GEAC for first-time appraisal of GM crops, including several food crops.
The move came after the Union Environment Minister Veerappa Moily did a u-turn on the views of his predecessor Jayanthi Natarajan and approved several trials that the GEAC had given the nod for in its earlier meetings. Ms. Natarajan had taken the view that it was not prudent to go ahead with the trials while the Supreme Court was hearing a case on the subject of field trials and the regulatory regime for GM technology in India. She had put the decision in abeyance while writing to the Prime Minister, expressing her views against immediately going ahead with trials of food crops. But Mr. Moily held, upon taking over, that the apex court had not explicitly ordered any stay against clearing field trials while the case went on.
The move to go ahead with GM technology — especially food crops — has been a subject of hot debate among the scientific community and evoked concerns among civil society groups. It had also created divisions in the government — the Agriculture Ministry, the department of Biotechnology and the PMO on one side and the Environment Ministry on the other. This had also delayed the government’s deciding on its stance on the Technical Expert Committee’s report in the case before the Supreme Court.
The government concurs with Mr. Moily’s view and has been working on putting forth a joint position before the apex court — something Ms. Natarajan had expressed the reluctance to do. More than 100 food crop trials are in the pipeline, in various stages of development, and the UPA’s Biotechnology Regulatory Bill is set to lapse with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha. Thus, the green light for trials, which comes just ahead of the elections, provides hope to major promoters — multinational and Indian — of GM crop technology.