The Supreme Court's guidelines on GM crops have been overlooked with the government okaying field trials of genetically modified crop varieties
New Delhi Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 6, Feb 16 2008 http://www.tehelka.com/story_main37.asp?filename=Ne160208uneven.asp
FEARS OF genetically-modified crops finding their way out of field trials and into the average Indian's diet may seem far-fetched to some. But for a few, they are valid and their realisation seems imminent as the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has approved new field trials of genetically modified crops in violation of a ban imposed by the Supreme Court in 2005.
In the GEAC's 78th meeting on May 22, 2007, field trials of GMmustard, large scale (pre-commercial) trials of Bt Brinjal and stacked genes of Bt Okra (bhindi) were approved. In another meeting on August 8, 2007, the GEAC gave the go-ahead to field trials of truncated synthetic Cry IAC rice. These were not in the original list of 24 items covering 91 field trials approved by the GEAC in the intervening period of May 2 to September 22, 2006. TEHELKA is in possession of the list of recent GEAC approvals and some of these approvals are of field trials to be conducted by Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company Ltd (Mahyco). In 1998, Mahyco and GM major Monsanto India formed Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech (India) Ltd, a joint venture, after Monsanto picked up a 26 percent stake in Mahyco.
Fearing the unregulated proliferation of GM crops in the country, Aruna Rodrigues and other environmentalists filed a public interest petition in the Supreme Court in May 2005, for a moratorium on the release of GM crops/organisms into the Indian environment and the need for proper bio-safety testing before their release, including in-field testing. The apex court took strong note of the matter and stopped further field trials. It also put in precautions to be taken in 'ongoing' field trials for 24 items including Bt cotton, Bt cauliflower, Bt brinjal, Bt rice, Bt castor. In all, 91 field-tests were on. But the recent approvals do not have the court’s clearance and hence are in violation.
Functioning under the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the GEAC is the regulatory body assigned to monitor the manufacture, use, import, export and storage of hazardous micro-organism and genetically engineered organism and cells. It is also responsible for the 'approval of proposals relating to the release of genetically engineered organisms and products into the environment, including experimental field trials'.
The SC had put in place unambiguous safeguards: there should be a distance of at least 200 metres between trial fields and other fields with the same type of crop; the GEAC was to conduct regular supervision and the approved institution carrying out trials was to submit validated event-specific tests to confirm that there had been no contamination.
When TEHELKA sought the Department of Biotechnology's (DBT) response to the unapproved field trials okayed by the GEAC, it said the fears were misplaced. The DBT, which falls under the Ministry of Science and Technology, categorically says in its written communique, 'There has been no violation of the Supreme Court directive and the continuation of an ongoing field trial means that the GM crops already inducted in the list can be permitted for trials for evaluation and generation of material for specific tests.'
But the matter is pending in court with the government seeking more time to respond when the court had initially granted it four weeks. What is more intriguing is the conflict of interest that has been glossed over by the government. GEAC co-chairman CD Mayee is the sole Indian representative on the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications (ISAAA), a non-profit organisation that delivers the benefits of new agricultural biotechnologies to the poor in developing countries. Further, the ISAAA is funded by biotech giants like Bayers Cropscience, Monsanto, Syngenta, Pioneer Hi-Bred and BBSRC whose field trial proposals come to the GEAC for approval time and again.
But the DBT doesn't see anything amiss here and refutes the charges as baseless and misleading. 'ISAAA India office has no core funding support from any organisation. With limited funding support, all programs are designed and executed in collaboration with existing national and international public sector institutions and not-for-profit organisations.' On the same lines, the DBT says, 'CD Mayee's association with ISAAA is insufficient to prove conflict of interest.' Also, the DBT sees nothing wrong in accommodating biotech companies on task forces and steering committees that direct policy and investment. 'To pinpoint Mahyco alone may not be appropriate,' clarifies the DBT. 'DBT believes such association with the industry is important for spearheading public-private partnership for the progress of the country.'
NGOs AND many regional government agriculture agencies allege that the GEAC does not act on their complaints when they report illegal field trials by MNCs and violation of contamination precautions. TEHELKA has in its possession several letters that seem to have fallen on deaf ears. West Bengal State Agriculture Commission member TK Bose informed the GEAC about illegal field trials in Nadia district in November 2007. He wrote, 'The field trials of the Bt okra conducted by Mahyco in a farmer's field without informing the monitoring agencies in the state in 2007 is therefore illegal. Similar illegal trails were conducted by Mahyco in 2006 and the matter was also brought to your notice but the report was ignored.'
The DBT is reluctant to supply allergenicity data about the safety of GM crops that is used as a basis to declare field trials safe. What is even more surprising is that developers like Monsanto and others do the biosafety testing themselves. Scientists from India and abroad have requested the GEAC and the DBT to share this information and help them analyse data generated by the biotech companies on the basis of which they have been getting the go-ahead for field trials. In a sign of the strength of the GM lobby, there are hardly any trial proposals that have been rejected by the approving committee.
The DBT counters these queries with: 'Gene flow is a natural phenomenon and is an evolutionary process. While developing the GM crops, the issue of GM flow is addressed at the very start to assess gene flow.' It adds, 'This issue has been hyped in the public and in the Supreme Court.'
Let alone the allergenicity data, the biotech companies are not willing to reveal the site of field trials and are asking the government to do the same. Documents with TEHELKA show that officials of biotech firms have asked senior DBT officials not to divulge information even if the applications are filed under the Right to Information Act. It is open to question how the Supreme Court’s safeguards will be monitored if the field trial sites are kept under wraps.
Recently, one Divya Raghunandan approached the Central Information Commission (CIC) under the RTI Act to seek toxicity, allergenicity and other relevant data on transgenic brinjal, rice, mustard and okra. The DBT simply refused to furnish them. The CIC was unflinching. 'It is clear the genetically engineered organism or cells are recognised by the government as an item potentially hazardous to public health. In light of this, we cannot agree that inspection of this information can be provided in the restricted environment to members of the civil society.' On April 13, 2007, the Commission directed the DBT to make the information available. The second time round, the DBT did not deny access to the information but said it could not be provided as the data ran into thousands of pages. Then, they came up with another excuse: the bio-safety data of rice, okra and mustard was yet to be generated. It is again open to question as to how field trials for these crops were okayed when the data on which they were to be assessed had not been generated.
THOUGH THE CIC directed the DBT to come up with the details on November 22, 2007, the Delhi High Court has kept the CIC’s orders in abeyance till the next hearing due in April this year.
Further, reports from several state government agencies say that even local farmers are taken into confidence about the field trials. One such matter was reported from Andhra Pradesh where Bt okra trials were conducted in Guntur district with the Department of Biotechnology’s permission. The state agriculture department’s report on field trials says: 'The farmer was not aware of the purpose of the field trials. The crops were sown in July 2005 prior to the date of permission accorded to them, that is November 10, 2005.'
Prof David R. Schubert, professor and head of the Cellular Neurobiology Laboratories at the Salk Institute of Biological Studies, La Jolla, has this to say: 'The critical issue is that any new GM food crop be properly tested for safety in carefully controlled studies with open public access to all of the data before it is allowed for environmental release in field trials.'
When TEHELKA spoke to Minister of State for Science and Technology and Ocean Sciences Kapil Sibal, he said, 'The DBT is contemplating bringing in a legislation called the Biotechnology (Safety & Regulation) Act. It will put in place a Biotechnology Regulatory Authority that will address all the gap areas in the GM sector.'
Scientists not part of the GM lobby say GM crops are as big a threat as climate change MIHIR SRIVASTAVA
EVERY ACTION that releases untested genetically modified organisms (GMOs) takes us to the brink. Contamination from GM field trials will be irreversible. Clearly, the regulator’s approvals are perverse, untenable for India and at variance with the precautionary principle,' asserts Aruna Rodriguez, who has taken the matter to the SC. Consider this: in the last 18 months, independent scientists analysed Monsanto’s own data on rat-feeding studies and found Bt corn varieties already approved by Europe’s regulator to be toxic. Also, Dr Judy Carman of the Institute of Health and Environment Research Inc., Kingston Park, Australia, submitted a report on GM crop safety in July last year. The report said: 'Only nine abstract (out of 60) could be considered to contain measurable application to the human health. The majority of these (6 abstracts) found adverse effect from eating GM crops.' Another study published in the October 2007, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, shows that crop litter from transgenic Bt corn washes into streams and adversely affects the growth and survival of the caddis fly, important food for aquatic life. Prof. David R Schubert, professor and head, Cellular Neurobiology Laboratories, the Salk Institute of Biological Studies, La Jolla, is of the view that the procedure used in the production of GM crops causes enormous number of mutations in the plant with completely unpredictable consequences. There are estimates that between 90,000 and 2,00,000 unique chemicals can be produced, with up to 5,000 in a single species. Many of these are known as highly toxic, cause cancer, and diseases like Parkinson’s.