Savvy Soumya Misra And Kirtiman Awasthi
India is on the verge of clearing its first genetically modified food crop, Bt brinjal, with several others in the pipeline. Does India need GM crops? Are they safe? How much does the consumer know?
On January 14, a meeting happened in room 23 on the sixth floor of the Union environment ministry building in Delhi. On the ministry’s regulatory body’s agenda was a historic item: permission for the commercial cultivation of India’s first genetically modified food crop. Everybody expected the body, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC, the clearing house for all gm crops in India), to clear Bt brinjal on the basis of test results submitted by seed company Mahyco, which has developed the crop.
GEAC was forced to delay a decision on the approval till April 2009. This, because of two reports that found their way to the meeting. For India’s small but highly active and well-networked anti-GM lobby had managed to get their hands on Mahyco’s test results through a Right to Information petition. They sent the results to several independent scientists for review. Two scientists got back. Their analyses showed inconsistencies in Mahyco’s interpretation of the test results.
They also showed the tests were inadequate.
The analyses reached the geac because of two important changes in how India regulates GM crops. One, the Delhi High Court ruled, in March 2008, that geac is bound to provide information on GM crop trials under the Right to Information Act.
geac had refused previous requests for making public test results, arguing the seed companies were entitled to protect their intellectual property. Two, the Supreme Court appointed its representative, Pushpa Bhargava, former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, as an observor to the GEAC.
This the court did in response to a petition that questioned India’s handling of gm crops. Anti- gm groups have alleged that geac works under the influence of the gm seed industry, and hence its decisions are not independent. In 2006, it permitted Mahyco to carry out field trials of Bt brinjal, ignoring protests by non-profits (see timeline: Bt brinjal in India).
With Bhargava in the committee, and two scientific analyses questioning the company’s claims, the geac could not clear Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation. When geac meets in April, its sub-committee may examine the two analyses and Mahyco’s response. If it gives the green signal to the seed company, geac will give Bt brinjal the nod.
This is the sub-committee—with the same members—which had cleared the 2006 field trials. Bhargava has said repeatedly that such a committee is pointless unless it comprises experts independent of the body. Rakesh Tuli, geac member, claimed the sub-committee would not take any decision against the country’s interests. Bhargava assured Bt brinjal would not be commercialized till all the safety assessments were completed. But his influence in geac is limited since he has no voting rights. He can advise the committee and if the committee does not act accordingly he has the choice to take the case to the apex court.
G V Ramanjaneyulu of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, a non-profit in Hyderabad, said geac’s regulatory will is questionable.
Source: Down to Earth