Finally, we have a decision: genetically modified (GM) foods are not landing on Indian dinner tables just yet. By imposing a moratorium on the commercial release of Bt brinjal developed by Mahyco, Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh has chosen the path of caution in what has been a bruising battle. Unsurprisingly, there’s heartburn, reflecting the deep divide on the issue among scientists and policymakers. Even the celebrations are muted. Described as “courageous” by some, Jairam’s final call is being viewed as “subjective” by others.
There is no middle ground here, just lots of questions. Did a cocktail of “emotions and politics” prevail, after all, over “science”? What does the decision mean for the future of India’s programme to boost GM crops? Is this but a clever red herring, a semi-final to GM foods? And will genuine concerns on safety, health, environment, yield and sustainability be addressed in the future?
Some of the immediate reactions say it all. “I prayed, fasted and even staged protests with other farmers demanding that the government should not give permission for Bt brinjal cultivation,” says a jubilant Samatbhai, an organic farmer from Dharai village in Gujarat. Finally, opposition from a section of scientists and over a dozen state governments, many of whom even announced a ban fearing an adverse impact on biodiversity, swung Jairam’s decision—overruling pressure lobbies within the UPA and outside.
Bt brinjals developed in Coimbatore
Drawing a parallel with the tensions during the induction of computers in banking, Prithviraj Chavan, MoS, science and technology and in the PMO, says, “There is nothing wrong in being cautious, but it should be a purely scientific decision.” Confirming his faith in the findings of the scientific community or the GEAC, renamed this week as Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, Chavan says “this cannot be a subjective decision”, as it could influence flow of investments in agriculture biotechnology.
Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar points out in the last seven years since India adopted the first GM crop—Bt cotton—cotton production has doubled (the share of GM cotton is over 85 per cent). However, there are many detractors who say that results are not uniform across the country. Charges of manipulation of safety trial data, denying rights of Indian farmers to own seeds and exploitation by US seed multinationals like Monsanto, which has 26 per cent stake in Mahyco, have dogged the growth of GM crops.
Even as some ask how the minister could override the regulatory authority, nullifying its very purpose, Jairam has not only overturned the GEAC’s decision, but also signalled a dilution of its powers. But noted biotechnologist and Supreme Court nominee in GEAC, P.M. Bhargava, a dissenter to the original GEAC clearance, calls it the “single most important decision taken by any minister since Independence, which will change the course of our development”.
Experts say it was the evident conflict of interest and haste in the clearance accorded to Bt brinjal that had eroded faith in the bureaucrat-dominated GEAC. Tiruvadi Jagadisan, former MD of Monsanto India, reveals, “Government agencies do not have the time or resources to test everything, so they depend on company data, which tend to be favourable to them.” Jairam has promised to change this. Former Planning Commission member and a pioneer in agriculture biotechnology V.L. Chopra underlines, “The important issue is to have a system of assessment which is transparent, accountable, independent and credible with no conflict of interest, which at the present moment does not exist.”
Does this mean the end of the road for scientists toiling for over a decade to develop GM crops (over six are in the pipeline)? Not so, assures the environment minister, as it is part of PM Manmohan Singh’s roadmap for food security. While public sector scientists are happy that Jairam foresees a bigger role for them in the GM space, it’s a fact that India spends less than a fraction of $3 billion annually spent by China on crop R&D.
Says P. Ananda Kumar, director of the National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology, “This is not a very encouraging development for scientists in public institutions who have been struggling to develop GM crops.” Hopefully, the policymakers will use the moratorium window to strengthen the regulatory process. And provide consumer choice through mandatory labelling.