Government will continue to monitor GM crops till 2012

Government will continue to monitor GM crops till 2012

New Delhi: Even as India prepares to set up an independent authority to evaluate the safety and efficacy of genetically engineered crops later this year, the lack of enough independent experts would mean that the government will continue to monitor the release of genetically modified (GM) crops, at least until 2012, said officials in the science ministry.

The lack of an independent authority to review GM products was one of the key reasons that led to environment minister Jairam Ramesh’s decision to impose an indefinite moratorium on Bt brinjal.

“The Bill to create the Biotech Regulatory Authority of India has been pending parliamentary approval for over a year," an officer in the science ministry said on condition of anonymity. “Even if it’s cleared in the Budget session, it will take a year to set up the authority. Then we will have to train people who will be engaged full-time with the authority. Biotech regulation can’t come to a standstill till then."

Currently, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), a part of the environment ministry, takes the final call on commercially releasing GM organisms. “The current system of the GEAC is likely to continue for the next few years at least," said another official in the environment ministry, who also did not want to be identified.

According to a draft of the Bill, which was reviewed by Mint, the proposed regulatory body plans at least three scientific divisions: an agriculture, forest and fisheries branch; a human and animal health branch; and an industrial and environmental applications branch. Each of these will be staffed by full-time professionals. These will tie in with a separate risk-assessment unit that will be involved in the testing process. The manpower need could not be ascertained.

Currently, clearing GM products is handled by GEAC and the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation, both of which consist of approximately 60 people. The committee doesn’t conduct safety tests of its own and only reviews the tests undertaken by a company interested in commercializing the work.

“This is one of the reasons that the proposed regulatory authority is irrelevant. If the fundamental problems of the GEAC were fixed, you wouldn’t need the new authority," said Pushpa Bhargava, founder director, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, and a vocal critic of the GEAC. Bhargava is a Supreme Court-nominated observer to the GEAC.

“Unless we have an independent authority in place, it will be hard to instill public confidence in GM crops," said M.S. Swaminathan, Rajya Sabha member and a biotechnology expert.