India's GMO regulatory body GEAC is reluctant to look at the scientific evidence questioning the safety of GM crops and seems set to forge ahead with blindly approving them
EXCERPT: The developments on the GM issue in the last 10 years also shows that there is a strong nexus between the politicians-technocrats-industry. The short history of GM regulation in India shows that any Environment Minister who showed some guts to rein in the GM technocracy and Industry had been unceremoniously shunted out.
Should govt policies on GM crops be dictated by technocrats who don't have to answer to citizens?
By Rajesh Krishnan
The NewsMinute, 18 July 2014
* It remains to be seen whether this government will buck the trend and bring in a new way of looking at technologies like GM crops whose risk are for all and benefits for a few
The King is dead, Long live the King!
The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) is set to meet on July 18th for their 120th meeting. For beginners, GEAC is the nodal agency for any open release of the much controversial Genetically Modifed Organisms (GMOs) in the country, including their experimental release. Both GM crops and GEAC have been in controversy, the former owing to their inherent threat to human health, environment and farm livelihoods while the latter courts regular controversy in the abysmal way in which they regulate, or rather don't regulate, GM crops in the country.
GM crops a tool to take control of our seeds
The debate around GMOs have been going on ever since 1973, the year in which the first GMO, a bacteria with a viral onco (cancer causing) gene was created in a lab in USA by Dr Stanley Cohen. Ever since, there has been growing scientific evidence on the negative impact of GMOs when released into the environment on one side and growing investment on GM crops by transnational seed companies on the other. The reason for the investment is the unique possibility of patenting and owning crops, there by ensuring continuous exclusive rights and profits from seeds, the most important input in agriculture.This is precisely the reason why transnational agribusiness giants like Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, BASF, Dupont, and Pioneer have been pushing for adoption of this technology across the world. The other reason is that the major kind of GM crops that have been developed are the Herbicide Tolerant ones which helps in increasing the sales of herbicides produced by these same companies. So its a win-win situation for them.
Nothing explains the monopoly that this technology can provide better than the cotton seed situation in our country. Bt cotton, the only GM crops approved for commercial cultivation in India, was approved for commercial release in 2002. Within a span of 12 years the entire cotton seed market in our country has been flooded with Bt cotton. While Monsanto wasn't selling this directly in India until this year, they had sub-licensed the technology to more than 50 Indian seed companies. Today nearly 100% of the cotton seed market is under the control of Monsanto. Besides taking away thousands of crores in royalty, that too from the most distressed of Indian farmers, the cotton farmer, this situation also poses a serious threat to our country's seed sovereignty, something even the 12th five-year-plan document concurs with. Imagine the situation if all our food crops also face the same situation. And this is not too far away if GEAC continues to give mindless approvals for GM crops.
Growing body of scientific evidence but who cares?
On the one hand there is the issue of socio-economic as well as political-economy impacts of GM crops that gets scant attention from the regulator and on the other it also fails to recognise the growing body of scientific evidence on the various adverse impacts of GM crops on human health and environment. Given GEAC's reluctance to look around for this growing evidence, some of us compiled more than 450 scientific papers talking about these adverse impacts and submitted it to them. The publication had commentaries from Dr M.S Swaminathan, Dr Pushpa Bhargava and Dr Madhav Gadgil, who are considered as doyens of agriculture science, modern biology and ecology respectively. But as expected even this couldn't help GEAC understand the need for precaution when dealing with GM crops which once released into the environment can cross pollinate or through other mechanical/human error end up contaminating our food and seed supply as well as our environment.
Bt Brinjal exposes the regulator
Though the first set of Bt cotton hybrids were commercialised in 2002 and many scientists, farmer unions and civil society organisations have been raising concerns on the impact of this, GM crops and the way GEAC continued to approve more than a thousand hybrids over a period of 10 years. It was the Bt Brinjal, the first GM food crop which came up for commercial cultivation, that made the entire country sit up and take notice of this issue. The way in which GEAC, in those days (before February 2010) called as Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, was in a hurry to give approval to Bt Brinjal in the most unscientific, non- transparent and undemocratic manner created huge furore. The fact that it took 30 months of RTI battle ( from Feb 2006 to Aug 2008) and an order from the Delhi High court as well as the Supreme court for GEAC to make public even the safety assessment data of Bt Brinjal gives a clear indication of the non-transparent way in which the top regulator went about.
It took a strong public campaign along with various state governments saying no to Bt Brinjal for the then Minister of Enviornment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, to realise the gravity of the issue and revoke the decision by GEAC to approve commercial cultivation of Bt Brinjal and declare a public consultation, the first of its kind in the country. Besides opening up channels for feedback from the common woman and man, Jairam Ramesh also wrote to scientists of repute and state governments seeking their opinion on the introduction of the first GM food crops in the country.
The 7 public consultations he organised across the country saw thousands of farmers, consumers, experts, state government representatives, various civil society groups, industry representatives and others streaming in, besides those who sent their views to the minister directly through emails and letters. Apart from the widespread opposition to GM crops in general and Bt Brinjal in particular one saw in these public consultations, 13 state governments also formally responded back saying no to commercial approval of Bt brinjal. It was these voices that persuaded the Minister to take a prudent decision to put an indefinite moratorium on commercial release of Bt Brinjal, what he called as a decision that is “responsive to society and responsible to science”.
The debate around Bt Brinjal also exposed the serious lacunae in the way the entire regulatory system for GMOs operate in the country. It highlighted the inadequacy in the safety assessment of these risky and novel organisms before being let out into the open, the serious conflict of interests that existed in the regulatory bodies like GEAC and the RCGM (Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation) under DBT, the adhoc manner in which decision making happens and the non transparent and non consultative manner in which they work. In his order on Bt Brinjal moratorium Jairam Ramesh also decided to change the name of GEAC. The 'A' now stands for 'Appraisal' instead of 'Approval'. The other major decision that Mr Ramesh took was to create a new norm that field trials, the first point at which GM crops are let out into the open, needs No Objection Certificate (NOCs) from respective state governments where they are to be held. This was in response to various state government opposing any open release of GMOs in their respective states. The immediate reason was a letter from the then Bihar Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar to Jairam Ramesh in February 2011 condemning field trials of Monsanto's GM corn being done in Bihar without the consent of the state govt.
Parliamentary Standing Committee & Supreme Court Expert Committee points to regulatory failure
It was not just the Minister in charge of GEAC who realised the serious inadequacy of the regulation of GMOs, a year later, in August 2012, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture composed of 32 Members of Parliament from across political parties submitted their report titled “Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops – Prospects and Effects”.
The unanimous report besides cautioning the government of India against any haste in embracing the GM technology in agriculture, also highlighted the abysmal condition of our regulatory system. In their own words “ Having gone through the voluminous evidence gathered by them the Committee can safely conclude that all is not well with the regulatory mechanism put in place by the Government for oversight of cutting edge technology as sensitive as GMOs and products thereof.” Observing the lousy manner in which GEAC dealt with Bt Brinjal commercialisation decision, the committee also recommended “a probe in a thorough probe into the Bt Brinjal matter from the beginning up to the imposing of moratorium on its commercialization by the then Minister of Environment and Forests (I/C) on 9 February, 2010 by a team of eminent independent scientists and environmentalists.”
The other major recommendation was on open field trials of GM crops. It said “Considering the flaws and the shortcomings noticed by the Committee in the functioning of the regulatory mechanism meant for the purpose, the lack of preparedness of various agencies who should ideally be involved in various oversight and both, pre and post commercialization surveillance responsibilities in the context of transgenic crops, the still unclear ramifications of transgenic crops on bio-diversity, environment, human and livestock health and sustainability, the Committee desire in consonance with their recommendation in a previous Chapter that for the time being all research and development activities on transgenic crops should be carried out only in containment, the ongoing field trials in all States should be discontinued forthwith.(emphasis added)” (Para 7.21)
If all that was not enough, the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) appointed by the Hon'ble Supreme Court of India in its final report by 5 out of 6 scientists in the committee, submitted to the court in July 2013, points to the twin problems of regulatory system failure and potential adverse impacts of Genetically modified organisms. The final report reiterated and further validated the science-based concerns on the health and environmental impacts of GM crops and highlighted the serious lacunae in the regulatory system to properly asses and regulate the open release of GMOs. It recommended that
“It would not be advisable to conduct more field trials till such time that major gaps in the regulatory system are addressed (these gaps need to be addressed before issues related to tests can be meaningfully considered)” (Page 77, Recommendations, para 1, of the final report by the Majority TEC).
The other major recommendation of the committee, based on existing information, was against any open release of Bt (pesticide producing) GM crops, HT(pesticide tolerating) GM crops and GM varieties of such crops like rice, brinjal etc of which India is a centre of origin and diversity.
GM crops & the Politico-technocrat-Industry nexus
The developments on the GM issue in the last 10 years also shows that there is a strong nexus between the politicians-technocrats-Industry. The short history of GM regulation in India shows that any Environment Minister who showed some guts to rein in the GM technocracy and Industry had been unceremoniously shunted out. This need not come as a surprise since the pro GM lobby within the UPA government was led by none other than the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh and ably supported by the Agriculture Minister, Sharad Pawar. The intense differences in opinion between the MoEF and MoA,with the PMO taking the side of the latter came to light after the correspondences between the ministries and PMO was leaked out in the media.
The then Minister of Environment and Forests, Smt. Jayanti Natarajan was forced to resign after her last letter refusing to accept the promotional position on GM by MoA and PMO and the new minister Sri Veerappa Moily immediately agreed to the government affidavit steered by the MoA. Moily also let GEAC approve close to 200 field trials of GM crops which have been held back by Ms Natarajan saying that one needs to take the recommendation of the court appointed expert committee and wait for the court to give a final order on the same.
Interestingly the share prices of multinational seed corporations like Monsanto, Bayer, BASF etc went up from December 2013 when the news of Moily replacing Jayanti Natarajan happened. In fact, the share prices of Monsanto almost doubled in the four months from December of 2013 to April 2014 and every time Moily gave out a pro GM statement, it shot up.
With a new government in place this time that of a party which has been seen echoing the concerns raised against GM crops by the public both inside and outside the Parliament and one which in its manifesto for the General Elections said that it will take a precautionary approach towards GM crops, one would expect some change. But with recent media reports coming out on the new government's plan to okay more field trials of GM crops, the hopes seem to be misplaced.
Looking deep into the reasons one also realises that it doesn't matter who becomes the Environment Minister, GEAC and their policies to 'promote' and not 'regulate' GM crops would prevail. All of this reminds one of the phrase “The King is dead, Long Live the King!” This phrase used to refer to the continuity of monarchy started in France and continues in those parts of the world European world where Kings still are the nation heads.
It remains to be seen whether this government will buck the trend and bring in a new way of looking at technologies like GM crops whose risk are for all and benefits for a few.
The Parliamentary standing Committee in its report had a way forward, a Bio-safety protection regime. They said and I quote “The Committee feel that regulating biotechnology is too small a focus in the vast canvas of biodiversity, environment, human and livestock health, etc. and a multitude of other such related issues. They have, therefore, already recommended in a previous Chapter setting up of an all encompassing Bio-safety Authority through an act of Parliament, which is extensively discussed and debated amongst all stakeholders before acquiring shape of the law”. (Para 8.120)
Until then the active citizenry in the country which had stood its ground and fought to keep our food, farm and environment free from GM contamination cannot put their guard down.
Rajesh Krishnan, the author, is a practicing farmer with an educational background in Biotechnology and Ecology. He is currently the Convenor of the Coalition for a GM Free India, a large network of concerned organisations and individuals across India fighting to keep our food, farms and environment free from GMOs.