New Delhi: Rattled by the possibility of a ban on genetically modified (GM) crops in India, the country’s top scientific organizations are planning a united defence of the technology and the need for research into such crops in India.
Last month, a high-level committee appointed by the Supreme Court recommended stopping all ongoing open field trials on such crops for 10 years until a new set of conditions are enforced.
Key recommendations of the panel include a reassessment of the biosafety data that is generated by field trials; ensuring there is no conflict of interest (that is, those tasked with evaluating the biosafety of GM crops are themselves not stakeholders in promoting such crops); a ban on outsourcing or subcontracting field trials, and ensuring that the crops being considered for testing be evaluated by rodent-feeding trials.
The prominent constituents of the grouping are the department of biotechnology, the department of science and technology, the ministry of environment and forests, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the Association of Biotech-Led Enterprises, an industry lobby. They are expected to articulate their combined position on 9 November as part of a Supreme Court hearing.
The case in question is a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by activist Aruna Rodrigues, who had sought a complete moratorium on field trials for GM crops.
“If this country is not interested in such science (GM crops), we shouldn’t waste time on it,” said Swapan Kumar Datta, deputy director general (crop sciences), ICAR. “But the consequences of such actions will only be known in future, when we’re faced with problems of food security.”
Other officials said that a united front was necessary as the particular case had potentially severe implications for the future of science in India. “Today it is trials on genetically modified crops, tomorrow it could be clinical trials,” said M.K. Bhan, secretary, department of biotechnology. “There is now a serious threat to science-based policy in India.”
The committee’s recommendations also come after an August parliamentary panel report criticizing the introduction of Bt cotton as well as tests on GM food crops.
The panel’s study—Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops—Prospects and Effects—was among the most extensive conducted by a parliamentary standing panel, which received 467 memoranda and 14,862 documents, and reviewed evidence given by 50 organizations during its 27 sittings.
While Bt cotton is the only GM plant that’s allowed to be cultivated, private firms have been looking at introducing different kinds of GM seeds, including rice, tomato, wheat.
Following protests by activist groups and farmers, several states have banned trials of GM crops. This followed a moratorium on the release of GM brinjal imposed in 2010 by Jairam Ramesh, who was environment minister at the time.
To bring about greater transparency in the way crops are tested, the government has proposed an independent regulator—the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India. Legislation to set up the body has been pending for two years.
Earlier this year, the ministry of consumer affairs, food and public distribution ruled that all packaged food that was sourced from GM ingredients had to be labelled to that effect.