Bringing GM to the table

On May 11, 2017, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) — the scientific committee of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change — that regulates genetically modified (GM) crops in India — had cleared GM mustard for commercial production. Anti-GM groups immediately opposed the decision and appealed to the Minister for Environment, who gives the final clearance, not to accept the GEAC’s recommendation.

Issues at core of opposition

The question of whether India should allow commercial production of GM crops has been one of the more enduring public policy debates over the last decade-and-a-half. After the approval of Bt cotton in 2002, the attempt to bring Bt Brinjal into commercial production faced serious resistance in 2010. After the GEAC approved Bt brinjal for commercial production, the then Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, placed a moratorium after undertaking extensive public consultation. Proponents of GM crops, including Noble laureates, insist that opposition to GM crops is driven by irrational fears of harm to human health and having an environmental impact and accuse opposing environmental groups of misrepresenting facts. Such arguments, however, are unlikely to convince the opponents of GM crops. While the debate is complex, involving a wide range of scientific, socio-economic, and political factors, it is important to understand two related issues that are fundamental to the opposition: invoking the precautionary principle for regulatory decision-making and a lack of trust in government and industry that promotes and benefits from GM technologies.

One of the principal reasons for opposition to GM crops is the potential for serious, irreversible damage to human health and the environment. This is especially relevant in the context of crops such as Bt brinjal which involve direct consumption by humans, unlike Bt cotton. The widespread havoc that chemical pesticides and fertilizers have caused since the Green Revolution only adds credence to these concerns. While GM supporters claim that there is little scientific evidence of adverse impacts so far, GM opponents cite the need for longer term assessment of adverse impacts and more concrete evidence of no adverse effects. Implicitly, GM opponents are invoking the precautionary principle, which is a widely incorporated one in several international agreements and treaties on the environment. In the context of technologies such as GM crops, where there is significant scientific uncertainty over their safety, the precautionary principle suggests that we wait until a broader scientific consensus is achieved. For example, regulations in Europe, where GM crops face similar opposition, explicitly invoke the precautionary principle as the basis for deciding whether GM foods should be allowed.

Lack of transparency

The lack of transparency in the regulatory process further amplifies apprehensions stemming from a precautionary approach. All the safety tests for regulatory approvals are typically conducted by the same party that applies for commercialisation of GM crops — whether it is Mahyco on Bt brinjal or Delhi University on GM mustard. This conflict of interest was made worse by the refusal of GEAC (in both cases) to publicly release the safety testing data submitted for regulatory approval until GM opponents filed a Right to Information petition. This tendency to operate in secrecy has not only created a serious distrust of the government and the promoters of GM crops but is also fuelling the conflict. Extensive research on public acceptance of GM foods in the European context identifies trust in regulatory agencies and industry as being a critical factor in public willingness to accept GM technology.

In a well-articulated decision letter at the time of rejecting Bt brinjal, the then Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, outlined the need for the GEAC “to draw up a fresh protocol for the specific tests that will have to be conducted in order to generate public confidence”. The GM mustard case does not provide much evidence that anything has changed since the moratorium on Bt brinjal.

If there is a genuine case to be made to allow GM crops to improve yields and address India’s food security, GM supporters might want to start cultivating an environment of openness and transparency to allay genuine fears instead of dismissing GM opponents as being “irrational”. On its part, the government should adopt a participatory approach to bring together all stakeholders to develop regulatory protocols that restore trust in the process. The burden of proof lies with the promoters of GM technology to persuade consumers, farmers and activists that among various alternatives available for sustainable food production — e.g., organic farming, use of biopesticides — GM technology is at least a serious option that we should embrace.

Rama Mohana R. Turaga teaches public policy and sustainability at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. The views expressed are personal

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