EXTRACT: "If the biotechnology industry is getting a bad name, it's because they push GM products when we have safer ways of increasing productivity."
Field trials on trial
Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 45, 10 Nov 2012

Tough times lie ahead for the GM industry with farmers protesting crop trials and an official committee suggesting a 10-year moratorium, says Shonali Ghosal

On 18 October, 200 farmers protested against open air genetically modified (GM) corn field trials being run at the Regional Research Station at the Choudhary Charan Singh Haryana Agricultural University at Kurukshetra. The next day, the crops were destroyed.

"They asked for two days to burn the crop entirely, but on 19 October, we found that the Monsanto officials and university authorities were collecting samples and making records. We gathered about 50-60 farmers and made sure they destroyed it," says Gurnam Singh, 52, Haryana president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU). "There were field trials in Uchani (Karnal) and Hisar also, but their time-periods have lapsed. We will not allow GM trials in Haryana," adds Gurnam. Clearly, the anti-GM sentiment in the country has grown louder with states such as Bihar, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh banning field trials. Besides, official committees have also recommended discontinuing such trials.

The latest report, dated 18 October, was submitted by the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) set up by the Supreme Court. A key recommendation is to put a 10-year moratorium on field trials of Bt transgenics in all food crops (meant for direct human consumption) until specific sites for conducting the trials have been marked and certified, and competent monitoring mechanisms put in place.

For biosafety data analysis of GM crops, the TEC has suggested the setting up of a new panel of scientists, instead of the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI).

Activists have been opposing the BRAI as a regulatory body, saying it would make the promoter itself the regulator. The body would be created under the Ministry of Science and Technology's biotechnology department. Moreover, it would also exclude the ministries of environment and forests, agriculture and health from decision-making positions even though GM crops have environmental, agricultural and public health impacts.

Earlier in August 2012, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture had submitted a similar report. "We, too, had suggested that trials could be conducted in confined places and not in the open, and had asked for a stricter regulatory body instead of the BRAI," says Basudev Acharya, the committee’s chairman. "The action-taken report on what has been done following our recommendation, is expected to be out in December."

However, the TEC went a step ahead asking for competent systems to check safety as well as preliminary biosafety tests, including checking the sub-chronic toxicity in small animals, before starting field trials. "The TEC report is important because it recognises that field trials themselves pose a risk by releasing into the environment new organisms, which are unknown and untested," says Kavitha Kuruganthi of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture.

Earlier this month, Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar had written to the CMs of all states asking them to give "adequate and fair opportunity to the scientific efforts to develop GM crops" by allowing field trials. However, Kavitha does not believe the recent recommendations hamper research. "This report doesn't say anything against research, but only that it should be done in contained conditions," she adds. Similarly, Sridhar Radhakrishnan, convener of the Coalition for a GM-Free India, says, "Even the Standing Committee had not said no to GM crops, but only asked the industry to put a moratorium, until proper safety and analysis mechanisms are in place."

The GM industry is not happy with these reports, with companies such as Monsanto and Mahyco expressing their displeasure. But anti-GM activists are not surprised. "When the Bt brinjal moratorium was imposed, the GM industry said it was unscientific. They were angry when the Standing Committee said biodiversity and farmers' lives are at stake. Now, when a scientific panel has said the same thing, there’s again the same noise," says Radhakrishnan. "If the biotechnology industry is getting a bad name, it's because they push GM products when we have safer ways of increasing productivity."

Shonali Ghosal is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
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