Saturday, January 10, 2015

Experts urge caution on GM crops

Suman Sahai

A high-level committee chaired by T S R Subramanian was set up to examine and review six laws related to the environment. In its report submitted recently to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the committee recommended that the latest technologies be used to prepare an environmental map of the country. Despite its support for science and technology, the report has also warned that technologies should be used with caution, recognising their limitations.
As an example of how cautious use of technology is warranted, the Subramanian report cites the example of GM crops and the mindless use of science and technology in this case , with no reflection on its potential for harm. It says that the careless or 'unprepared'  introduction of GM crops presented the possibility of adverse effects on the environment  in the medium or long-term. Acknowledging that the country had no independent expert agencies (to judge the safety of GM crops), the Subramanian report urges caution upon the  Ministry of Environment and Forests in dealing with genetically modified crops. The report takes cognizance of the fact that Europe does not permit field trials of GM crops and recommends caution in the adoption of GM crops in India, saying that the small size of Indian farms would more easily facilitate genetic contamination, leading to a 'severe' adverse impact on biodiversity through gene flow.
The Subramanian report is not the only high-powered report urging vigilance and the adoption of the precautionary principle in the context of GM crops, particularly food crops. It is just the most recent of several other reports .
The Sopory  Committee Report  of 2012 was commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture. Dr Sudhir Sopory, currently Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, and a molecular biologist by training, chaired a committee to examine the scandal surrounding the development of Bt Bikaneri Narma (BNBt) cotton, supposed to be India's first public sector Bt cotton which had to be withdrawn. 
The committee's findings raised disconcerting questions over the claims made by scientists who developed the BNBt cotton, the role of regulatory bodies, the public sector research institutions and their ethical standards. The establishments dealing with GMOs have been indicted in this report for lacking scientific expertise in GM technology, scientific deception and fraud, regulatory inefficiency and lack of monitoring and oversight. 
This indictment by the Sopory Committee was followed by the report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture chaired by Sri Basudeb Acharia which has pointed out several flaws in the research and implementation of GM crops in the country. The committee specifically recommended that  the government must not allow field trials of GM crops till there is a 'strong, revamped, multi-disciplinary regulatory system' in place. The committee held that this was not the case.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee also noted several shortcomings in the functioning, composition, powers and mandate of the GEAC and the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM). It recommended that the Parliamentary Committees on Science and Technology and Environment and Forests should do a comprehensive examination of the role of the regulatory agencies and report this to Parliament.
Unhappy with the evidence presented to them, the Basudeb Acharia Committee recommended that a thorough probe be conducted  into the permission given by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) for the commercialisation of Bt Brinjal. It went on to add that to avoid conflict of interest in outcomes, there should be an examination by independent scientists of research reports and assessments  that the GEAC relied on to declare the Bt Brinjal biosafety data adequate and to approve it for commercial release.
And finally there is the report of the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) that was set up by the Supreme Court in response to a writ petition filed by Gene Campaign in 2004, asking for an overhaul of the regulatory system for GMOs and greater technical competence in the structure of the regulatory bodies. 
In its interim report of 2012 to the Supreme Court, the TEC said that “Based on the safety dossiers, the TEC has found in unambiguous terms that at present the regulatory system has major gaps and these will require rethinking, investment and relearning to fix. A deeper understanding of the process of risk assessment is needed within the regulatory system for it to meet the needs of a proper biosafety evaluation. This is not available in the country at present. It is therefore recommended that the requisite understanding be developed through consultation, collaboration and capacity building”. 
The TEC report recommended that a number of corrective measures be adopted to improve the biosafety testing and quality of regulation of GM crops. It concluded by saying that a moratorium of ten years should be imposed on field trials of GM food crops and held that this time should be adequate to restructure and operationalise a strengthened regulatory mechanism. In its final report of 2013, the TEC repeated its findings and justified the basis for coming to the conclusions that it did, which was for the government to take steps to overhaul the structure and functioning of the regulatory bodies. It reiterated its recommendation for a ten-year moratorium on the commercialisation of GM food crops.
Despite all these high-powered and competent voices demanding an improvement in the shoddy and by all accounts compromised system of regulating GM crops, neither the UPA government nor the current Modi government has thought it fit to take action. Instead, after a back and forth on the issue, the Modi government has somewhat surreptitiously allowed the field trials of GM mustard and Bt Brinjal. 
The government must make a new beginning with a review of the existing reports and hold consultations to improve the regulatory system. Much thought and many inputs have gone into defining the contours of a rigorous and a credible regulatory system that can evaluate both the scientific and socio-economic impacts of GM crops. The output of such a review will enable policymakers to take correct decisions about this new and dichotomous technology.
 Source:- The Tribune, 06 Jan. 2015