Sunday, November 4, 2012

Indian Express article on GM CROP REPORT

The SC must reject the biased interim report of the committee on GE crops

While hearing two writ petitions opposing genetic engineering technology in agriculture, the Supreme Court constituted a technical expert committee with six members and seven terms of reference. It asked the committee to hear interested parties and submit an interim report on open-field trials of GE crops, whether to ban them or not and what protocol should be imposed by the court if they are to be continued.

The committee submitted a confidential interim report on October 7, which soon became public and was widely covered in the media. However, the report very seriously impacts the prospects of GE crop technology in India, and was probably leaked only so that wide publicity would make it difficult for the court to reject it.

The only agricultural scientist on the technical expert committee dissociated himself, leaving five members who are biologists, but not biotechnologists, much less agricultural biotechnologists. The staunch opposition of these five to GE crop technology is well known, so it wasn’t surprising that they produced a heavily biased report. But the recommendation to ban all open-field trials of GE crops for 10 years, including the ongoing trials, surpassed even the wildest dreams of the petitioners and activists. If this recommendation is accepted, it will push Indian agricultural development back by at least two decades, surpassing the damage caused by the moratorium on Bt brinjal.

The committee overshot its mandate, digressing into a range of far-reaching issues. Fourteen of the 31 people who appeared before the committee are supporters of this technology and provided information on some of these issues, but they were sidelined. The committee was indifferent to the voluminous peer-reviewed literature of some 15 years that answered their questions. Only some of these issues are addressed here.

The fact that India is a signatory to the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), which is dedicated to sustainable development, does not place any additional burden to hinder GE technology, since the US, Canada, China, Argentina, Brazil, etc are also signatories to the CBD and leading GE-crop adopters. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB) is about transboundary movement of GE crops. No provision of either CBD or CPB is meant to prevent new agricultural technologies. The precautionary principle is about moving cautiously, not an excuse to hinder technological development. The impact of a GE crop on biodiversity should be assessed on a case-by-case basis as it depends on the possibilities of gene flow to other varieties of the same crop — there has been no evidence of this in the 15 years that they have been grown, in some 30 countries.

Their efficacy, safety and the socio-economic benefits to farmers and consumers have been amply demonstrated. About 350 million people in North America have been consuming GE crop foods for over 15 years without any proven adverse effects. Bt cotton transformed India into a cotton-exporting country. But the committee was not impressed by any of this.

It wants to impose on GE crops chemical toxicology tests such as the Ames test used to determine the potential to cause cancer and the micronucleus test to determine genetic damage. It recommends that 39 tests be conducted on all GE crops, irrespective of need or relevance. This surpasses even the 31 tests (most of which are unwarranted) insisted on by the “scientific” face of Indian anti-tech activism. Biosafety tests have to be chosen for each crop, depending on the science-based need for them. A history of safe use of a crop minimises toxicology tests, and allergenicity tests are warranted only if the non-GE variety of the crop was allergenic. The technical expert committee insists on long-term and integration feeding studies, dismissing the international norm that 90-day rat feeding tests, equal to testing for 24.5 years on humans, are more than adequate, and that no new data would emerge out of longer testing. Development of a GE crop costs about US$ 140 million and takes 12 to 15 years to commercialisation. Unwarranted tests enhance these costs. All biosafety parameters stipulated for a particular GE crop have to be satisfied when the application for commercial release is considered, and insisting on any particular sequence for them is unreasonable.

The Indian biosafety regulatory system incorporated the best global practices and is very stringent. However, it is nobody’s contention that it is perfect. The Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) bill meant to remedy any shortcomings is now before Parliament. Since it would take some five years before the BRAI is operationalised, the existing system should be allowed to function. If any changes are made, they cannot be applied retrospectively.

The constitution of the technical expert committee and the terms of reference seem to have been accepted by all parties. If this committee is biased and if its interim report affects the modernisation of Indian agriculture, the blame also rests on the respondents and their counsel who meekly allowed such a situation. Scientists, industry and the government should now plead before the Supreme Court that it not accept this flawed interim report.
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