Wednesday, December 4, 2002


But pliant GEAC does not object

Suman Sahai

To ensure that Indian farmers get the best possible seeds, any variety approved for their use must be thoroughly tested by the best institutions under the best possible conditions. This does not seem to be the case with Proagro’s controversial GM mustard variety. The safety of Proagro’s mustard is in question. Safety tests for the GM mustard as human food and as animal feed were conducted by Proagro itself, by feeding seeds and leaves of the transgenic plant to pigeons and rabbits. The company reportedly supplied both the samples to be tested and the controls against which the samples had to be tested, making the tests a farce. Moreover, the tests were not conducted in any government laboratories which are open to scrutiny but in private institutions (FIPPAT in Chennai and Sriram Institute, Delhi). Even in these privately conducted tests, there was no involvement of scientists from the national agricultural system. The safety data were accepted by the GEAC despite this unusual practice.

Equally questionable is the manner in which the field trials were done for Proagro’s GM mustard. The Aventis/Proagro hybrids have not gone through the prescribed procedure of the All India Coordinated Crop trials as crop varieties in India are required to do. In India, all varieties have to undergo rigorous testing in all zones at 40-50 locations and a variety is only notified after this process is completed, a process which lasts over three years. The Aventis/ Proagro mustard has been tested by ICAR ( Indian Council of Agricultural Research ) for only one season, in just 4 locations , in a total of 3 zones!

Curiously enough , like in the food and feed safety tests, it is Proagro itself which has supplied the bulk of the data on field performance to the GEAC, on the basis of tests it has done itself on its own trial variety. The clear cut conflict of interest – the industry providing the data on which its performance will be judged, does not seem to disturb the GEAC. In a deplorable departure from ethical practice, the GEAC does not seem unduly worried either , about the potential for Proagro to manipulate the data both on its field performance and on human and animal safety tests. It has trustingly accepted what Proagro has supplied.

So glaring has been the pro-industry bias of the GEAC , that the Director General of the ICAR has been constrained to criticise it. The ICAR chief has said that the GM mustard data are not sufficient to justify commercial release and that additional tests would have to be done , specially since most of the data provided to the GEAC have been generated by the company itself. The DG of the ICAR also said that “no exceptions can be made in the case of Proagro”, implying that this had indeed been the case.

This is significant in view of the GEAC’s obduracy in insisting that Proagro would not be required to conduct any additional tests. When the decision on release of the mustard variety was deferred from the meeting of 7 November, 2002, to one scheduled for 10 December, the GEAC had categorically stated that the Committee would only review the old data and not ask Proagro for any new data.

One is forced to question this unseemly rush in giving clearance to Aventis’ mustard despite several outstanding and unresolved questions. More so since some Indian labs are on the threshold of releasing high performance non- GM hybrid mustard varieties. Promising hybrid mustard varieties are being developed in the Indian Agricultural research Institute/ Delhi, in Punjab Agricultural University/ Ludhiana and in Haryana Agricultural University/ Hissar. All three labs are very close , about two to three years , from releasing non GM mustard varieties with far better performance than the Aventis variety being pushed by the government.

This great desire to see the Proagro mustard variety through at all costs, has alarmed some NGOs sufficiently to petition the Chief Vigilance Commissioner to investigate the conduct of India’s scientific and regulatory agencies, particularly the GEAC. The known proclivity of the multinational sector to buy influence in governments and decision-making bodies and the complete lack of transparency in the functioning of the GEAC has fuelled suspicions of corruption and irregularities.

It continues to remain a matter of concern that the GEAC resolutely refuses to respond to requests from the NGO community seeking information on the results of field trials of both Bt cotton and GM mustard . Despite repeated requests and several letters requesting information about the results of field trials of transgenic varieties, Sri. A.M. Gokhale, Chairman GEAC, has not responded to the queries made. This evasive conduct would seem to suggest that the GEAC is hiding unpleasant truths that cannot withstand public scrutiny. In addition to the results of test data, Gene Campaign has also been demanding that in the interests of transparency and credibility, independent experts must be allowed to visit test sites and evaluate the performance of GM crops.

If India is to develop as a leading agricultural country capable of absorbing and implementing new technologies, then the scientific and regulatory agencies will have to demonstrate far greater maturity and sensitivity to public concerns than they have been doing so far. This ‘Insider club shrouded in secrecy , taking decisions on who knows what basis’, is not acceptable. Information on Proagro’s mustard and every other GM variety considered for release will have to satisfy all possible health, environmental and ecological criteria, to the satisfaction of the public.

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