Genetically modified India
The debate over regulating genetically modified crops in India is back after two years of silence that followed the moratorium on the Bt brinjal, a genetically modified eggplant. This is thanks to the government’s wavering policy on agricultural biotechnology. If you study its policy since the eggplant flare-up, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was designed to do two things that don’t quite fit together.
Here is what happened:
The government released its report on the hills of the Western Ghats nearly nine months after the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) submitted it, and then only under a court order. The report, among other things, warned that genetically modified organisms were a threat to biodiversity in India. The government attached a disclaimer to the report, saying that it has not formally accepted the conclusions.
Meanwhile, minutes of meetings of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) — the central government’s regulatory body for GM crops — reveal that the committee is trying to convince state governments to allow field trials of genetically modified crops.
This is happening as India’s National Biodiversity Authority considers whether it will sue Monsanto and some of the agricultural universities involved in promoting Bt brinjal in India, according to information given by the authority in response to a Right To Information filing.
The authority has said that the agricultural universities and Monsanto are guilty of bio-piracy. That means exploiting the knowledge of India’s indigenous peoples for commercial gain without permission, compensation or recognition.
Here is how we got to where we are:
May 2007: After months of legal arguments, the Supreme Court allows field trials of Bt brinjal to proceed under strict conditions, including keeping the crops at least 200 metres from other crops during field trials, and conducting tests to confirm that they did not contaminate other crops.
2009: The GEAC gives its nod for the commercial release of Bt brinjal.
February 2010: The environment ministry, which supervises the GEAC, imposes a moratorium on the eggplant.
June 2011: The GEAC makes it mandatory for agriculture companies to make sure that state governments don’t object to trials of Bt brinjal. Twenty-four states say no.
Why is the GEAC trying to persuade the state governments to allow field trials when they could say no? According to environmental activists, the regulator is under pressure from agriculture companies that want to avoid the restrictions of the central government. This appears to make the GEAC a promoter, not a regulator of genetically modified crops.
And why does the government not accept a report produced by a scientific committee that it set up? New Delhi appears to be portraying itself as sensitive to the concerns of the people while also trying to remain in the graces of agriculture companies that want to invest in India. This comes at a time when the government is facing flak for being weak on policy reforms.
While all this has been happening, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs has made it mandatory for genetically modified food products to be labelled as such, starting in January 2013. Based on previous incidents, agriculture companies don’t like that: Monsanto has threatened to sue the state of Vermont in the United States for trying a similar move.
With 71 genetically modified crops in various stages of the approval process, it is time for the government to make a decision on whether they are safe or not. The people of India are depending on it.
(Writing by Robert MacMillan)