Monday, March 18, 2013

Comments on the Technical Expert Committee’s report on GMOs

Suman Sahai

1.A Technical Expert Committee (TEC) was appointed by the Supreme Court to go into issues raised in the two PILs filed on GMOs. The first by Gene Campaign in 2004, the second a year later by Aruna Rodrigues and friends, in 2005. The Supreme Court had appointed a five member TEC to give recommendations on two specific issues:  i) whether a ban should be imposed on conducting field trials of GM crops , in open fields and i) if such trials were to be conducted, then what scientific protocols should be followed and what conditions imposed for such trials.

 The TEC has submitted its interim report and has pointed out the serious lacunae in the regulatory framework for GMOs  and recommended a moratorium for 10 years on any open field trials  till the shortcomings in regulatory procedures  have been sorted out and additional safety data generated through proper studies. It may be recalled that a similar injunction by the then Environment Minister , to generate additional biosafety data on Bt brinjal led to an embarassing cut and paste rehash of old data by senior scientists of the ICAR system.

In upholding the Precautionary Principle in its approach, the TEC members have played a responsible role in protecting the public interest and safeguarding the health of humans and animals, as well as the environment. It is heartening  to find mention in the TEC report of several important points that Gene Campaign has been raising over the years, like banning genetic transformation of crops for which India is a Center of Origin (like  rice) and a moratorium on trials of GM crops with  the Herbicide Tolerance trait, which is labour displacing and destroys valuable biodiversity used by rural communities as food, fodder and health and veterinary care.

TEC has also emphasized the importance of considering the socioeconomic aspects of introducing GMOs , before taking any decisions.  Socioeconomic aspects are  an important issue raised in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to which India is a signatory and the conditions of which it usually fails to take on board. In failing to consider the impact of a GM crop , for instance on organic farming, the Indian regulatory system completely ignores the interest  of such farmers who would lose their markets if contamination with the GM product were to take place. In addition to this, in failing to pay attention to socio economic aspects, India is in violation of its commitment under the Cartagena Protocol on biosafety.

The TEC report’s emphasis on the extremely limited, often compromised nature of biosafety testing is correct. The current practice of conducting dangerously  inadequate feeding  studies to assess the food safety and toxicity of the transgenic plant has been strongly  criticised , as has been the practice of allowing applicants of GM crops  to sub contract their biosafety  studies to other agencies. This abdication of responsibility and failure of accountability by agencies engaged in developing GM crops and foods, in such a crucial area  is a recipe for disaster and almost certain to include violation of even the weak biosafety guidelines that are in place. 

Civil society groups have over the years uncovered several instances of  field trails of GM crops being conducted in flagrant violation of all biosafety procedures, in the middle of farmers fields, thus ensuring transgenic contamination of neighbouring crops. In many cases these untested GM  food crops from open field trials have found their way to the markets and been consumed by local farm families, putting at risk the health of those who have unwittingly consumed these possibly toxic foods.  The TEC recommendation to stop such shoddy , unregulated field trials  immediately , even in cases where permission has already been given, is a much needed intervention in the right direction.

Gene Campaign’s original prayer in its 2004 PIL and an oft repeated subsequent demand for  more  technically competent people in regulatory bodies , specially in the apex GEAC, has found mention in the TEC report. It has said an immediate rectification of this  serious lapse is warranted because the current members were not capable of assessing scientific data to assess safety. The TEC critique should help to fundamentally overhaul the unsatisfactory and inadequate regulatory system and force a reality check on regulators who  have never tired of calling themselves the best in the world.

The TEC report should also put the GM industry on guard which for too long has succeeded, by using all sorts of methods to get its way with half tested GMOs . With the complicity of pliable regulators, violations by powerful companies are covered up by the  regulators themselves and nobody is brought to book.

The TEC recommendations for a ten year moratorium on field trials of all Bt transgenic food crops is a correct step but needs to go further. Several transgenic food crops are being developed with non Bt genes and these must also be brought into the ambit of the 10 year moratorium. The impacts of these genes ( like the ama gene used in potato and the genes being used in mustard etc)  are even less understood than the Bt gene and bringing them under the moratorium for further assessment is crucial. Perhaps the final TEC report that is yet to come,  will deal with these issues. 


2. I fully agree with the interim report submitted by the Committee to the Hon’ble Supreme Court.
The Precautionary Principle has been rightly invoked by the Committee in giving its recommendations. The Precautionary Principle says that if there is a reasonable suspicion that an action will result in damage to the environment, human and animal health, such action should not be allowed. In case of GM Technology there is concrete evidence about its potential for harm to health and environment safety. All recommendations made by the TEC have scientific and legal support and therefore, ought to be reiterated and re-emphasized.

The Supreme Court in its order dated 10 May, 2012 had given three months time to the Expert Committee to submit its final report. The interim report was required to be submitted only in the event that the Committee was unable to submit its final report within the three month period. The Supreme Court has not accepted the recommendations of the Technical Expert Committee appointed by it and has opened up their report for comments from the government and the GM industry. The government council has said explicitly that they will not accept the report. The GM industry, not surprisingly, has taken an aggressive line against the Supreme Court appointed expert committee’s recommendations.

The most logical action for the Technical Expert Committee would now be to respond to all the objections and suggestions that have been raised on their report by the government and the biotechnology industry and submit one final report. This report should include what still remains to be submitted as well as  the responses to the new objections and suggestions. There does not seem to be any reason for the TEC to file another interim report incorporating responses to the objections and then to submit a final report after that. In the interest of rational decision making, the TEC should collate everything and submit its one time final report.