23 May 2011 Business Agriculture: gm crops

Just A Clever Comma?

The GM crops debate rages, but pressure is on to end the moratorium
Just A Clever Comma?
Tribhuvan Tiwari
Just A Clever Comma?

Actively On Hold? Well...

  • GEAC meets experts in late April, butthrows no light on safety reviews
  • Second report by national science academies supports limited release
  • GEAC chairman rejects limited release; assures further discussions
  • No decision on further tests or studies to justify Bt Brinjal
  • Civil society groups meet GEAC in May, seek ban on further field trials
  • Bihar, MP stall transgenic maize field trials; Kerala refuses trials for transgenic rubber


GM crops being tested

Brinjal, Rice, Okra, Cauliflower, Cabbage, Castor, Groundnut, Tomato, Sorghum, Potato, Rubber, Maize, Transgenic Bollgard-II Cotton*, Transgenic Corn*

*Level-II field trials


“The moratorium has nothing to do with the future of GM technology in agriculture...so we are not abandoning GM in agriculture,” Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh had told Outlook the morning after announcing a two-year suspension of work on Bt Brinjal in February 2010. How time flies—and how some things never change. Fourteen months later, the moratorium looks to have been a clever red herring before ushering in GM foods on Indian dining tables. For, there’s a distinct impression that it will be lifted soon.

The sentiment came to the fore at the recently held review meetings on the issue by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC). Invitees to the meetings, including experts and civil society members, have had no clear sense of what has been done to address public and scientific concerns that led to the imposition of the moratorium in the first place. “The kind of corporate agenda this government has, it’s a foregone conclusion that it will be lifted before too long. They are going slow only because the Supreme Court is also watching,” remarked Parshuram Ray of the Centre for Environment and Food Security.

Of course, there are pressures. The ministers of agriculture, science and technology and HRD had opposed Jairam’s decision even then. Prof P.M. Bhargava, biotechnology expert and SC nominee in the GEAC, concedes, “It appears there is pressure on the GEAC to lift the moratorium.” That Jairam himself has acknowledged the pressure, having given way in recent cases like POSCO, the Maheshwar hydel power project and the Navi Mumbai airport, doesn’t help matters. Despite repeated requests, he wouldn’t speak to Outlook for this story.

“The kind of corporate agenda this regime has, the moratorium on GM crops will be lifted before too long.”
Parshuram Ray, CEFS

So what’s causing all this disquiet? Despite clear instructions in the February ’10 moratorium, Bhargava points out that no clear modalities have been framed to review the tests done on the bio-safety, environment, health and agriculture impact of Bt Brinjal. Instead of a “scientific” discussion, Bhargava says “partisan” material (from a joint report by six national science academies) was presented at the GEAC meeting on April 27, “bringing the issue back to square one as before the moratorium was imposed”. In September ’10, the environment minister had scathingly rejected an earlier report by the same academies for using material from advocacy reports of the seed development companies.

Opponents of Bt Brinjal are, however, happy that GEAC chairman M.F. Farooqui opposed the recommendation of the scientific institutions to push ahead for a limited release. Stressing that the broad principles of bio-safety, environment and health for the release of GM crops remain the same, Farooqui told Outlook, “The committee has still to take a view on whether and when more tests will be needed. Various views have been heard and there is need for more discussions.”

During the run-up to the moratorium on Bt Brinjal release, 14 states had raised objections. In recent months, the Bihar and Madhya Pradesh governments have denied permission for field trials of transgenic maize, citing safety concerns. Earlier, Kerala too had refused permission for trial of transgenic rubber. And in a letter to the environment minister, MP’s agriculture minister Ramkrishna Kusmaria criticised the GEAC for carrying out Bt maize field trials without the state’s permission; he also asked the moef to supply a list of other field trials in progress to get the crops destroyed.

With the environment minister having given directions that states would have to be consulted before any field trials, expectations are that more states, particularly those promoting organic farming, will be denying permission.

The threat of contamination and illegal leak of GM seeds is very real. Though rules require farmers to create the mandatory “refugia” or buffer around the transgenic crops, Dr Paresh Verma, member, governing council, National Seed Association of India, admits that “compliance at the farmers’ level is very poor”. This is despite non-transgenic cotton seeds being provided along with Bt cotton seeds at the time of purchase. And it’s not just farmers. US seed major Monsanto and a government research institute too have recently been sent notices by GEAC for violation of specified norms.

Ecologist Dr Madhav Gadgil, who did not attend the review meeting, expressed concerns about India “not having carried out any study to examine the impact of Bt cotton, which has been around for eight years. We should have done studies to examine whether any of the (Bt cotton) gene has contaminated the general lines.” Here experts point out that through cottonseed oil, GM crops have already entered the food chain.

Seed developers admit that though transgenic seeds have the potential to protect against specific pests—and help reduce use of pesticides/herbicides—they will not drastically improve yield. Lower damage does improve net yield, claim Bt cotton growers. On the flip side, pest resistance to the anti-bollworm gene in Bt cotton has already led to farmers in Gujarat having to buy the more expensive double gene Bt cotton seeds.

Stating that “there is no tangible evidence of resistance so far”, Dr P. Ananda Kumar, project director at IARI’s National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology, stresses it is a natural phenomenon, requiring development of new strategies. Working on the penultimate stage of Bt Brinjal field testing, Kumar emphasises, “As long as we have the power to conserve our traditional varieties in gene banks, we have nothing to worry” on the contamination front.

The farmer community remains divided on the issue. Prof Sudhir Panwar of the Kisan Jagriti Manch says that “since the moratorium, hardly any new scientific knowledge has emerged for or against GM crops. Farmers need clarity from the scientific and political community”. There are few expectations that the proposed biotechnology regulatory authority will fill the lacunae, unless distance is maintained from vested interests.

India would do well to adopt Norway’s model—a legislation that necessitates public consultation at every stage on GM issues, including imports. Or opt for the China model of keeping out mncs from the seed business. For now, it is only our state governments that can checkmate any transgenic transgressions.

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