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New Delhi: Nearly a year after its clearance for field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops ran into stiff opposition, the Union ministry of environment and forests has decided to proceed cautiously, clearing proposals on a case-to-case basis.

“There is opposition to field trials of GM crops and that is (why) ministry has been trying to evolve consensus on the issue. But it does not mean that there is a ban on clearing field trials. We are cautiously going ahead and following a policy of case-by-case approval of GM crops," said a senior environment ministry official, who did not want to be named.

Last July, representatives of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-linked outfits Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) and Bhartiya Kisan Sangh met environment minister Prakash Javadekar to register their protest against the go-ahead for field trials. After the meeting, the representatives claimed the clearances given for field trials were put on hold, but the government said no decision was taken.

“Since then, several meetings have taken place to bring everyone on board and dispel any notion not based on science. Such meetings will continue to take place," said the official quoted earlier.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in its 2014 election manifesto, had said that GM crops will not be allowed without proper scientific investigation. But GM crops are central to the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA’s) government’s plans for pushing investment and growth in the biotechnology sector, and boosting farm productivity in India.

Javadekar told Mint in February that scientific evaluation and confined GM trials with adequate safeguards is the way forward.

Meanwhile, the agenda and minutes of the meetings of Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) after April 2014 are not publicly available. Officials in the environment ministry said this was specifically to avoid any controversy. The GEAC is the the top body in the environment ministry that recommends or rejects field trials.

Outfits such as SJM aren’t happy. “We want all clearances to field trials of GM crops withdrawn. We protested against it on 5 May. Now, we will wait till 26 June. If the government still decides to go ahead with it, we will protest countrywide and decide our way ahead," said SJM’s national media head Deepak Sharma.

But a few quarters are positive about resumption of field trials, albeit on a case-to-case basis. “We welcome the news, if the environment ministry is resuming its approval of field trials. We sincerely hope that the regulatory body (GEAC) meets regularly so that the research on agricultural biotechnology can continue without any interruption," said Shivendra Bajaj, executive director of the Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises’s (ABLE) agricultural focus group.

The issue of GM crops has always been contentious in India. Though the country occupies the fourth place globally in terms of area under GM crops, the only commercial GM crop allowed here is Bt cotton. Cotton occupies only 14% of the global GM crop coverage in terms of area, after soybean (50%) and maize (30%).

States including Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana have denied permission for field trials of GM crops. All field trials are subject to a no-objection certificate (NOC) from the respective state governments and are strictly monitored.

Recently, the BJP-led Maharashtra government gave an NOC for confined field trials of GM food crops including Bt rice, herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant transgenic maize, salinity-tolerant rice and insect-resistant transgenic chickpea.

GEAC did not meet between March 2013 and March 2014, but between March and July 2014, it cleared around 60 proposals for experimental field trials of crops such as cotton, rice, castor, wheat, maize, groundnut, potato, sorghum, brinjal, mustard, sugarcane and chickpea.

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