Clearance for field trial of genetically modified rubber?
K. A. Martin
The Hindu, 2 December 2010
In the face of opposition from the Kerala government to all genetically modified (GM) crops, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) is learnt to have approved a proposal from the Rubber Board for conducting field trials of GM rubber. The GEAC has been constituted by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests to oversee the manufacture, export or import and storage of microorganisms and genetically engineered organisms. Kerala has the highest cropped area under rubber among Indian States, and it accounts for 90 per cent of the aggregate production of natural rubber in the country.
Informed sources in the Rubber Research Institute of India based in Kottayam told The Hindu on Wednesday that after laboratory trials proved successful, an application was submitted to the Union government for field trials. The Institute was awaiting a formal letter of clearance from the GEAC.
The sources indicated that about an acre of land had been identified in one of Kerala's leading rubber-growing districts for the field trial.
However, when his attention was drawn to this matter, State Minister for Agriculture, Mullakkara Ratnakaran, told The Hindu that he had not received any official communication. He had come across some unofficial information, he said. He would convey the State's protest to the Union government if the clearance was indeed being granted.
The reported approval from the GEAC comes in the background of the government making it clear that it would not allow GM crops in the State. Kerala has been declared a GM-free State and organisations opposed to GM crops have expressed concern over the possible approval by the GEAC.
They recall that the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests had recognised the concerns of the public in disallowing field trials of Bt. brinjal and other GM vegetables in the country.
They point out that the Task Force on Application of Biotechnology in Agriculture chaired by Professor M.S. Swaminathan had recommended keeping agro-biodiversity hotspots GM-free. The Western Ghats region is one such hotspot and a global natural heritage.
The State government has not, however, so far made a clear distinction between food crops and non-food crops (such as GM cotton) in its stance on GM varieties.
The proposed GM rubber field trial comes at a time when natural rubber production has virtually stagnated while demand is on the rise worldwide. Production of natural rubber in India in October 2010 fell by 7.6 per cent to 82,000 tonnes compared to 88,775 tonnes during October last year. Consumption of natural rubber during the month was 81,500, compared to 77,950 tonnes in previous October.
The cumulative production during April-October 2010 stands at 4,57,250 tonnes compared to 4,337,400 tonnes during the same period in 2009. This is a growth of 4.5 per cent. Aggregate consumption for the first six months of the current financial year stands at 5,50,550 tonnes against 5,34,315 tonnes. This is a growth of three per cent.
The Rubber Board has pointed to a protracted period of heavy rain to production loss during October. Natural rubber production in countries such as Thailand and Indonesia too has come down due to heavy rain.
Over the recent months, rubber prices have appreciated about 100 per cent, raising input costs for automotive tyre manufacturers and other consuming industry components. Yet, farmers in Kerala have not quite reaped the benefits of higher prices because of disruption in tapping.