Gene Campaign welcomed move that the Government has held up the permission given by the Genetic Engineering Approval committee (GEAC) to conduct 15 field trials of five GM crops. Dr Suman Sahai of Gene Campaign said although the GEAC could only have proceeded with a green signal from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), it is nevertheless good that the MoEF has reconsidered its decision.
For one, the matter is sub judice since the Supreme Court is still considering the report of the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) appointed by it in response to two PILs, the first filed by Gene Campaign in 2004. In its report, the TEC has advised abundant caution in the matter of releasing GM crops in the absence of an adequate regulatory system and suggested a moratorium till the regulatory system was substantially improved. This is in keeping with the prayer of Gene Campaign in its 2004 PIL.
The government must move in a transparent and intelligent manner on the issue of GM crops and give itself time to develop an informed opinion on the subject after comprehensive consultations. The MoEF Minister Mr. Javadekar has indicated that he is inclined to do this. There is no compelling reason to rush ahead with the release of GM crops. There is nothing in the pipeline that promises anything for either food or nutrition security. Nor do we have a food crisis at hand. In any case, we are producing large amounts of food by conventional agriculture already.
The BJP had stated in its manifesto that it would consider GM crops only after careful scientific testing and evaluation. After government formation, one of the first public statements made by the new Agriculture Minister Sri Radha Mohan Singh was that GM crops were not the priority of the Agriculture Ministry. Then suddenly out of the blue, in a significant turnaround, came the announcement that permissions to go ahead with field trials had been granted for a large number of crops.
Dr. Sahai said that sending such conflicting signals is not good for policy making and does not help any of the stakeholders. Indian policy has been favorable to moving into a high tech era. However technologies are seldom value neutral and their adoption must be done after due reflection. The new Prime Minister is known to be a technology buff.
Genetic engineering is a regulated technology and if we want to adopt it, it must be regulated properly to protect the environment as well as human and animal health. There are several outstanding concerns about GM crops and despite the biotech industry’s rhetoric about their safety, these concerns need to be resolved in an open and transparent manner.
We need to keep in mind that it is those very scientists who developed GM technology and who better than any one else understood the positive and negative aspects of it, who asked that this technology be carefully regulated. Just like the technology for generating atomic energy is regulated and is subject to several safeguards that must be carefully implemented, genetic engineering is also a regulated technology with its own set of safeguards and testing protocols that must be implemented.
The government would do well to make a new beginning with a review of existing reports and hold consultations to put in place a stringent regulatory system. Much thought and many inputs , the latest being the TEC report, have gone into defining the contours of a rigorous biosafety testing process and a credible regulatory system that can evaluate both the scientific and socio-economic impacts of GM crops. The outputs of such a system will enable policy makers to take correct decisions.