Three States rebuff GM regulator’s directive to test transgenic cotton

GEAC seeks reasons as Gujarat says proposal to test new pink bollworm-resistant seed variety is “unacceptable”, Telangana refuses trials in current season, Maharashtra fails to respond

June 11, 2023 03:17 am | Updated 03:17 am IST - NEW DELHI

Transgenic cotton is the only GM crop which has been approved and is currently being cultivated in farmer’s fields in India. File

Transgenic cotton is the only GM crop which has been approved and is currently being cultivated in farmer’s fields in India. File | Photo Credit: K. Ananthan

Three states, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Telangana, have rebuffed a proposal, approved by the Centre’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), to test a new kind of transgenic cotton seed.

The seed in question was developed by Hyderabad-based Bioseed Research India and contains a gene, cry2Ai, that purportedly makes cotton resistant to pink bollworm, a major pest. The seed has passed preliminary, confined trials and was recommended by the GEAC to be tested in farmer’s fields at Janwada, Telangana; Jalna, Maharashtra; Akola, Maharashtra; Junagadh, Gujarat; and Barwala-Hisar, Haryana.

Under the current rules, transgenic seeds must be tested in open fields before they can hope to be cleared by the GEAC for commercial development. Agriculture being a State subject means that, in most cases, companies interested in testing their seeds need approvals from the States for conducting such tests. Of the four States that Bioseed applied to, only Haryana gave permission for such tests.

Only Haryana approves

This was after the GEAC in October 2022 sent letters to all States to “communicate their views/comments” within two months on the proposal. Apart from Haryana’s approval in November, only Telangana responded to the GEAC’s missive within that period, requesting a 45-day extension to consider the proposal. On May 16, Telangana responded that it would not allow trials to be conducted in the current 2023-24 cropping season. Gujarat later responded, saying that the proposal was “unacceptable” to them, but did not furnish reasons.

Following a GEAC meeting on May 17 – the minutes of which were only made public last week and have been viewed by The Hindu – the regulator wrote to Telangana, seeking its reasons for not taking up the trial in the current season; to Gujarat, asking why the proposal was deemed unacceptable; and to Maharashtra, seeking its response within 30 days. “In case no response is received from them within the stipulated time, the GEAC will make appropriate recommendation in this matter,” the records of the meeting show.

Educating the States

The GEAC has also asked the Department of Biotechnology and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research to “…jointly organise capacity-building activities with regard to GM crops for apprising the State/UT Government(s) about the technology involved and the regulatory framework in place for evaluation of these GM crops.”

The GEAC is comprised of agriculture and plant-genetics experts and is headed by a senior official of the Ministry of Environment and Forests and co-chaired by a senior scientist of the Department of Biotechnology. Activist groups have objected to the GEAC asking States to furnish reasons for disapproval.

‘Biased lobbying’

“When State governments like Telangana and Gujarat have declined to provide NOCs, GEAC is forcing them to provide reasons or break their silence. Why should a statutory regulator be pressurising State governments in this manner? It has also been recorded that some activities will be taken up with State governments “to enable informed decision-making by State governments”. This is a biased lobbying approach that a supposedly-neutral regulatory body is taking up,” Kavitha Kuruganti, a member of the Coalition for a GM-free India, said in a statement.

Transgenic cotton is the only GM crop which has been approved and is currently being cultivated in farmer’s fields in India. Transgenic mustard was approved by the GEAC, but additional tests have been prescribed before it is fully approved for widespread cultivation.

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