SCI-TECH & AGRI

Many skeletons tumble out of GEAC’s cupboard

Reliability question: Over the last six years that Bt cotton has been around, no independent verification system has been set up.

Reliability question: Over the last six years that Bt cotton has been around, no independent verification system has been set up.   | Photo Credit: — Photo: Shaju John

R. PRASAD

Depending on data provided by companies seeking permission for field trials is not wise

The open field trials for various genetically modified crops are being conducted without first undertaking all the tests during the confined field trials. This has been the observation of Dr. P.M. Bhargava who was appointed as a special invitee to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) in February this year at the instance of the Supreme Court to bring about more transparency in the way the GEAC conducts its business.

The minutes of the meeting held in April clearly state that “… the studies enumerated by Dr. Bhargava are being carried out [now].”

Unethical practice

Responding to the minutes, Dr. Bhargava had stated in a communication to the committee that “if the results of these studies are still not available, for example for okra, how could [open] field trials be permitted?

"…Where the studies have not yet been completed, all clearances for open release of the GMOs [genetically modified organisms] concerned should be kept in abeyance till the data and results of the studies being conducted become available and are scrutinized and approved.”

He cites another instance where 12 important tests were recommended by the Pental Committee report for Bt brinjal. “In view of this, it is not understandable as to how the Committee also concurrently recommended large-scale trials,” he had pointed out in his personal communication to the GEAC.

Lack of biosafety data

Dr. Bhargava has been highly critical of the paucity of biosafety data apart from the way the tests are being conducted by institutes that are not fully equipped to conduct such tests.

The minutes of the meeting held in April this year clearly takes note of his reservations. It states: “Dr. Bhargava, reiterating his earlier concerns, informed that he would not be able to support the release of additional Bt cotton hybrids for commercialisation without examining the biosafety data and other available alternatives.”

And during the May meeting of the GEAC, he had called for a three- to four-year total moratorium on GM crops and their products.

Despite all his opposition, the GEAC has in a mischievous and misleading manner noted in the minutes of the April meeting that “recognizing that Bt crops expressing Cry 1Ac toxin are already under commercial cultivation, he extended his full support to the proposal [large-scale trials of Bt cotton in the northern zone] subject to the condition that additional data if required would be generated by the applicant. Further in the national interest, he suggested that as an exceptional and unique situation, the GEAC may consider commercial release at this stage.”

“No, that is not what I had said. What I had said was that unless all the data are available, we must keep everything on hold,” he clarified. The very fact that the minutes of the April meeting has been inconsistent while taking note of his views provides enough proof of the committee’s intentions.

Contesting the many points put out in the minutes of the meetings, he said: “none of these points was mentioned in the meeting. These were their afterthoughts.”

He is also highly critical of the committee coming to depend on data provided by companies requesting permission for field trials and commercialisation. “There is little meaning unless there is an independent system of checking the data given by the applicant,” noted Dr. Bhargava.

“It is amazing that over the last six years that Bt cotton has been around, no such independent and reliable verification system has been set up by the Government.”

How equipped

Coming down heavily on the GEAC, Dr. Bhargava, in his communication to the committee, which was made available to this Correspondent, has noted that the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology, Hyderabad, which has carried out certain tests does not have the capability to check if the samples provided by the applicant are GM brinjal or non-GM brinjal.

“IICT has many capabilities but not this one,” he had stated. “There is no evidence that this is IICT’s data.”

Coming to the issue of monitoring confined field trials by an independent and reliable body, he had unequivocally stated that such a monitoring does not exist. “For example, the field trial under the auspices of RCGM for Bt cotton was never monitored,” he had noted.



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