A draft law to create a Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) has been tabled in Parliament. If approved, it will replace the existing Environment Protection Act (EPA), 1989 rules and BRAI will replace the genetic engineering appraisal committee (GEAC) as a regulatory body.
The BRAI Bill fails to address the concerns surrounding genetically modified (GM) crops in India at a time when opposition to GM is growing in the country. There are two key assumptions on which the Bill is based: one that modern biotechnologies (read GM) are essential for improving agriculture, and two, their safety can be easily ensured by following certain protocols and be regulated.
Let’s see how true the assumptions are.
Almost 17 years after the introduction of the first GM crop in the world, only four crops—soybean (47%), maize (32%), cotton (15%) and canola (5%)—account for 99% of GM crops under cultivation globally. Only five countries (the US, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and India) account for 90% of the total GM cropped area. The rest of the world seems to be improving agriculture even without GM.
In the past 17 years, there have been umpteen reports and research papers that highlight various biosafety problems of GM crops. In India, the first and only GM crop, Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton was introduced in 2001 with the promise that it will reduce farm distress by reducing expenses on pesticides. After 11 years, we still find that 68% of the farmers’ suicides are from four major cotton growing areas. The use of pesticides initially came down due to reduction in bollworm infestation but increased again because of rising sucking pest attacks. There have been several other problems such as skin allergies to agricultural workers during the stage when the bolls burst, and a fall in soil fertility due to the impact on soil microorganisms.
When Bt cotton was introduced, the biosafety tests conducted before commercialization claimed that contamination is not a major issue. But when the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, released its version of Bt cotton, it was found to be contaminated with Mahyco Monsanto’s proprietary trait and had to be withdrawn from the market. The contamination, in hindsight, was inevitable. Given that India is a centre of origin, and a major centre of diversity for important food crops such as rice and brinjal, such contamination risks cannot be simply wished away.
The parliamentary standing committee on GM foods and the technical expert committee appointed by the Supreme Court have both pointed out these problems and have suggested a ban on further field trials and commercialization of GM crops till an improved regulatory system is put in place.
Instead of addressing these issues, the BRAI Bill only dilutes the current regulatory system, overriding the role of state governments in decision-making, and bypassing citizens’ right to information by including a clause on confidentiality of commercial information. India being a signatory to the Nagoya—Kuala Lumpur supplementary protocol on liability and redress is mandated to establish a strong liability and redress mechanism. But the penal clauses for erring in this Bill are extremely weak.
The BRAI Bill in its current format will do more harm than good. We must conceive of an alternative regulatory regime around GM crops with the primary mandate of protecting our health and environment from the risks of modern biotechnology. Such a regime should be based on the precautionary principle and must lay down protocols for independent testing, post-marketing monitoring, and rigorous assessments of long-term health and environmental impact of all GM crops.
Ramanjaneyulu G. V. is an agricultural scientist working with Centre for Sustainable Agriculture. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org