New Delhi: After the Maharashtra government allowed field trials of genetically modified (GM) food crops, states like Gujarat, Telangana and Karnataka may follow suit.
Since 2011 it has been mandatory for companies to obtain no-objection certificates (NOCs) for carrying out confined field trials of GM crops.
While only five states—Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Delhi—have so far allowed field trials for GM crops, several others like Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu have refused to give NOCs in the past.
“Earlier Gujarat said they won’t (allow trials in food crops) but now they are saying they will as they were the first ones to adopt Bt cotton. The National Seed Association of India (NSAI) held meetings with the Gujarat agriculture department, the message from that meeting is they will be inclined to look at it from a research stand point,” said Usha Zehr, chief technology officer (CTO) at Mahyco, a leading agri-biotech seed company in India, in an interview.
Karnataka is also considering allowing trials, she added.
While Gujarat may allow trials, other Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled states like Madhya Pradesh may not, said Zehr.
“Madhya Pradesh has not been very proactive even in the early days—if you look at Bt cotton introduction they were not the first states to adopt it—once all the neighbouring states adopted it Madhya Pradesh said, yes, we will also allow it. NSAI had a meeting with the Telengana government. We feel Telangana will have a positive stand but we are not sure as yet,” she said. Introduction of the rule requiring NOCs from states has created a bureaucratic barrier, said Zehr.
“Now, the states, if they want to take a position—a blanket position—that we will not allow trials of so many crops, then state it, publish it, then we will not go to those states. But the states are not taking (such a stand)… they are deciding on a case by case basis. Every time somebody (in the state government) makes a statement we have to go there, make a case to them and so forth. This has become a greater bureaucracy than what is required,” she said
However, with some states allowing trials it remains unclear whether GM seeds can enter states that have refused trials. “So, (say) Maharashtra gives us permission on 100 acres. As a company we will follow the norms and regulations and sell seeds for 100 acres in a designated area. Now what happens to that seed from the farmer’s field is in nobody’s control. How would you manage that,”asks Zehr. The issue is critical in case of Bt brinjal. With Bangladesh allowing commercial cultivation of Bt Brinjal since last year, even as the moratorium on the technology continues in India, it is feared seeds may reach India through porous borders of West Bengal, a major brinjal consuming and growing state.
For Mahyco, herbicide tolerant cotton—a controversial technology that attempts to replace agricultural labour—could be a major introduction this year if it gets regulatory approval from GEAC (Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee—the biotech regulator), said Zehr.
“The herbicide tolerance technology (roundup ready) is ready to be commercialized for the 2015 cotton planting season. The application is now pending before GEAC, which is likely to meet at the end of February; we are hoping that this will be one of the major agenda items they take up,” she said, adding, “There is a perception that labour is plentiful and technologies like herbicide tolerance which will free farmers from manual weeding will displace labour. The fact is labour is not available at the time you need it and wages have increased with programmes like MGNREGA.”
MGNREGA is short for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Currently, no GM food crops are allowed for commercial cultivation in the country.
However, over 95% of the cotton crops grown in the country use the Bt technology. Of late, the central government has shed its hand-off approach and agriculture and environment ministers in the union cabinet have been vocal about the need for transgenic technology.
“Now, I think everyone is on board. Scientific evaluation and confined trials with adequate safeguards is the way forward,” environment minister Prakash Javadekar said in an interview earlier this month, in obvious reference to past opposition to the technology from Swadeshi Jagran Manch and Bhartiya Kisan Sangh, affiliates of the Rashtriya Sawamsevak Sangh.
“The GEAC has been playing to the industry’s tune. As for NOC from states, we will have to wait until the approvals come through,” said Rajesh Krishnan, convenor of the Coalition for GM Free India. “If GEAC approves the herbicide tolerant cotton, it means they have failed to learn from the US experience where farmers are spraying much more to control superweeds.” “By taking everyone onboard, the environment minister means appeasing Sangh Parivar outfits. We were not invited to voice our concerns relating to regulatory failures in India,” he adds.
Arpita De contributed to the story.