GM crops: Panel proposes diluted norms for field trials

Environment ministry’s genetic engineering panel the says states be given a maximum of 90 days to respond to applications for conducting confined field trials

Green activists warn that the new norms will lead to centre-state conflicts. Photo: HT
Green activists warn that the new norms will lead to centre-state conflicts. Photo: HT

New Delhi: Notwithstanding the heated debate on genetically modified (GM) crops, the Union government is looking to dilute provisions that require applicants to seek no-objection certificates (NOCs) from states for conducting field trials.

The environment ministry’s genetic engineering approval committee (GEAC), the nodal regulator for GM crops, has recommended that states be given a maximum of 90 days to respond to applications for conducting confined field trials, after which their nod should be deemed as given.

The committee also recommended that since trials are conducted strictly within institutional premises, applicants should not require a clearance. In addition, the committee has decided to prescribe a standard format for issuing NOCs by state and Union territory governments.

According to the ministry, these changes will speed up decision-making. But activists say they will lead to centre-state conflicts as many states are already strongly opposed to the trials of GM crops.

“GEAC considers applications even as they know many states are already against GM crops,” said Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, a nationwide informal network of more than 400 organizations drawn from 20 states.

GM crops are a contentious issue in India and elsewhere—as of now, Bt cotton is the only GM crop allowed to be grown in the country.

However, the committee is considering an application to allow the commercialization of GM mustard—a move that is being opposed by various states and political parties.

“For instance, while GM mustard’s commercialization is being discussed by GEAC, the majority of mustard-growing states do not want GM mustard. GEAC should ensure that the decisions to allow field trials are not in conflict with policies of states that are against GM crops… otherwise it is a clear issue of centre-state conflict,” Kuruganti said.

Confined field trials of GM crops are regulated under rules for the manufacture, use, import, export and storage of hazardous micro-organisms, genetically engineered organisms or cells, 1989, notified under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.

In July 2011, the committee modified the rules to introduce a requirement that an organization or applicant proposing to conduct field trials in any state needs an NOC from the government of that state.

Several states have since refused to issue NOCs for field trials despite the committee’s approval. For instance, Kerala, Uttarakhand and Tamil Nadu have refused to allow field trials, leaving the industry complaining about delays in projects.

GM crops are central to the National Democratic Alliance government’s plans for pushing investment and growth in the biotechnology sector. They are also considered critical for boosting farm productivity in the country.

The issue was discussed during a meeting of government secretaries held in the Prime Minister’s Office in November 2015, where the department of biotechnology constituted a working group to examine and finalize modalities for establishing notified field trial sites.

The group, which held its first meeting in June, discussed the possibility of an in-principle approval for 10 years per site from state governments, with a review after five years, and the approval of notified field trial sites by an expert committee consisting of inter-ministerial representatives.

One of the proposals discussed was that a minimum of five hectares (12.35 acres) be assigned for notified trials in State Agricultural Universities. The plan envisages notifying of around 30-40 sites in various agricultural universities, covering all the agro-climatic zones for crops that are under various stages of product development.

In its August meeting, whose minutes were reviewed by Mint, the committee said even though there was no provision under the 1989 rules to inform state governments, seeking NOCs from state governments well in time would facilitate the procedure for states as well as applicants and ensure they don’t miss the cropping season.

The committee also said that to ensure stringent monitoring mechanisms for event selection trials, a sub-committee be convened to frame relevant standard operating procedures and guidelines, which may deliberate on making generation of data in line with international standards.

“This would cut delays. Our main aim is to not just (to cut) delays but also handle the problem of NOCs from state governments,” said an environment ministry official, who did not wish to be identified.

“It is ridiculous that if a state doesn’t give NOC in 90 days, it should be considered deemed approval. It should actually be the other way around that if states are silent even after 90 days, GEAC should take it as a denial. Also GEAC should not consider application for trials in states that have a policy against GM crops,” Kuruganti said.

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