Battle lines sharpen over GM

Ever since Bt cotton was granted approval in 2002, the issue of transgenic crops has created sharp divisions. File photo shows farmers in Bhopal staging a protest in 2012 to mark the 10th anniversary of Bt cotton’s introduction and to pay tribute to those who committed suicide in those 10 years. File photo: A.M. Faruqui   | Photo Credit: A_M_faruqui

Union Minister of Environment , Forests and Climate Change, Prakash Javadekar, was petitioned by farmers and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch to halt >trials of transgenic crops approved by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) on July 18 and there is some confusion if the government has actually taken such a decision. However, from what the Minister said subsequently, no such call has been taken to freeze field trials of five crops.

The GEAC decision has come even before the Supreme Court decides on a writ petition filed by Aruna Rodrigues in 2005, demanding a moratorium on genetically modified (GM) crops. A court hearing on July 15 did not take place but three days later, the GEAC cleared field trials for some GM crops.

The Centre had filed a response to the report of the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) in April 2014; the apex court is yet to adjudicate on it. The GEAC was quick to point out that the Supreme Court had not imposed a ban on confined field trials. But the comprehensive Parliamentary Standing Committee report on agriculture in 2012 had taken a clear stand against field trials.

>Read: Nip this in the bud, by Aruna Rodrigues

Call for greater regulation

The TEC called for strengthening the existing regulatory system before granting permission for conducting more field trials. In the absence of a ruling from the Supreme Court, the GEAC steamed ahead with what it thought fit, even as some States were against GM field trials. It clearly went against the opinion of the TEC and parliamentary committee reports and also a letter endorsed by over 250 scientists against field trials of GM crops. Research is important, said a GEAC official, even as he maintained that a blanket ban is unacceptable. The GEAC, it seems, could not wait for the Supreme Court’s decision.

From a committee of approvals, the GEAC has become an appraisal committee. It did not meet for almost two years from April 2012 to March 2014 and there were 79 pending applications for field trials, which included 37 for revalidation and 42 for confined field trials of various crops.

Even before he met farmers and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, Mr. Javadekar on July 21 sent conflicting signals through a tweet that said “field trials of GM crops are not a government decision. It is a recommendation of the GEAC”. But he failed to mention that the committee is under his own ministry.

On July 23, he clarified in Parliament that there is no proposal for a complete ban on the release of genetically modified organisms — either for commercial cultivation or for experiments. . He added that in view of various concerns on safety, efficacy and agronomic performance of transgenic seeds, extensive evaluation takes place before regulatory approval is given.

It is this very regulatory process that has come into question in the past by the parliamentary committee and the TEC, which was constituted by the apex court in 2012 to advise it on issues related to GM crops field trials and bio-safety assessment.

After the TEC submitted an interim report in October 2012, the Centre said it was scientifically flawed and did not address the terms of reference and merits outright rejection since it has exceeded its mandate. Later, the apex court appointed Dr. Rajendra Singh Paroda as a member who submitted a separate dissenting report when the five other TEC members submitted theirs in July 2013.

The Centre’s affidavit trashed the TEC report on several counts and accepted Dr. Paroda’s report which it felt had addressed all the terms of reference. It defended the present regulatory system in the country saying it was adequate and robust and the government was committed to strengthening it while praying for this writ to be dismissed.

Ever since Bt cotton was granted approval in 2002 without much debate, the issue of transgenic crops has created sharp divisions. A letter presented in November 2013 to the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked him to accept the recommendations of the TEC and disregard Dr. Paroda’s report.

The Centre’s affidavit said the process of preparation of the TEC report by five members was “non-transparent, non-participatory and undemocratic, so much so that one member [Dr. Paroda] was constrained to submit a separate report.”

Beyond the committee’s mandate

The Centre was also perturbed by TEC’s suggestion that there should be a moratorium on trial for crops which originated in India. The TEC had also recommended a moratorium on field trials of herbicide-tolerant crops until the issue had been examined by an independent committee. The government said such recommendations were beyond the mandate of the TEC and based on scientifically flawed reports..

The GEAC, by granting approval to GM trials even before the Supreme Court ruled in the matter, has shown an undue haste which has marked the history of transgenic crop approvals in India.

In a way, it has disregarded the committee of experts appointed by the government itself after the Court’s order. There are grave concerns about a loss of biodiversity — something that has happened already in the case of cotton and some other crops — and bio-safety regulations.

India is a signatory to international conventions on both subjects. It is imperative to proceed with caution on the issue of GM crops, move away from conflict of interest situations and take an impartial and rigorous scientific view which should benefit humanity at large and not just powerful corporations.

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Printable version | May 13, 2021 11:57:09 PM |

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