Despite stay, firms rush Bt proposals

Despite stay, firms rush Bt proposals

New Delhi: Even though environment minister Jairam Ramesh has put plans to commercially release Bt brinjal in cold storage, select government institutes and agriculture companies are unfazed.

They are pushing ahead with plans to develop genetically modified versions of a variety of other food crops that could some day appear in Indian kitchens.

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On 12 May, at the 100th meeting of the genetic engineering approval committee (GEAC), the controversial arm of the ministry of environment and forests, approved at least 17 proposals, the highest in over a year, to initiate as well as continue test trials on a variety of transgenic crops, including corn, tomato, rice and papaya.

“These were proposals for contained fields trials and we have given our approval for all of them," said P. Anand Kumar, a senior agriculture scientist and GEAC member.

Organizations seeking permission to conduct trials and research include a clutch of public sector organizations such as the Indian Institute of Horticulture Research, and private firms such as Monsanto India Ltd, Bayer Bioscience Pvt. Ltd and EI DuPont India Pvt. Ltd, an examination of the meeting’s agenda revealed.

Ramesh’s embargo on Bt brinjal doesn’t prohibit organizations from conducting research or testing Bt crops. However, in the aftermath of the moratorium, firms involved in transgenic seed research, as well as ministers, had expressed reservations about the prospects of genetically modified crops in India.

Sharad Pawar, minister for agriculture, as recently as last week, said that the moratorium on Bt brinjal had impacted scientists’ morale. “The scientific community is disheartened and nervous," he told reporters at a press briefing.

V. Ram Kaundinya, the chairman of Association of Biotech-Led Enterprises-Special Interest Group on Agri-biotech, a lobby group, said, “The concept of imposing a moratorium is a retrograde step and has left many of the stakeholders in both public and private sector in a state of confusion about the policy of the government. This will eventually harm the interests of the Indian farmers, Indian consumers and the country in general."

Ever since Ramesh imposed the embargo in February and directed GEAC to take steps to ascertain the safety and need for releasing GM brinjal, matters have been in limbo for the contentious aubergine.

Even as it gave the go-ahead for trials on several food crops, GEAC at its meeting decided to consult a panel of independent experts on the safety and sufficiency of biosafety tests conducted on Bt brinjal.

Analysts and seed company officials, however, say that the high number of applications reflect proposals that are in the middle or nearing the end of the seed approval process, and that if uncertainty over GM crops prevails, future investments will be affected.

“Most of these research projects, including ours, were initiated five years ago and are towards the end of the regulatory process," said Jagresh Rana, director, Mahyco Monsanto Biotech India Ltd.

Mahyco is one of the seed firms that has applied for permission to conduct advance seed trials. “But, on the other hand, if uncertainty prevails, it will affect new research. But as a company we’re confident that ultimately good science will prevail."

K.K. Narayanan, managing director, Metahelix Life Sciences Pvt. Ltd, Bangalore, added that companies were going ahead with trials simply because they had already invested quite a bit.

“It makes no sense to withdraw right now. But if over the next couple of years policies are still unclear then companies might begin rethinking their plans," Narayanan said.

Metahelix also has developed its own Bt-based genes for insertion into cotton seeds, and got commercial approvals from GEAC last year.