Biotech blues

Updated on: Feb 28, 2014

The Centre needs to clearly tell the apex court that it is not opposed to transgenic technology

Environment Minister Veerappa Moily has done the right thing by allowing field trials of genetically modified (GM) cotton, maize, rice and castor lines ahead of the new kharif planting season. The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) had given the go-ahead for these trials on March 22 last year. That decision, however, was kept on hold by Jayanthi Natarajan, then environment minister, on grounds of an ongoing public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court demanding a ban on open field tests of GM crops. Moily has rightly pointed out that the Court has not imposed an embargo and the mere existence of a PIL cannot be a ground for not permitting field trials. Moreover, the GEAC is the official biotech regulator constituted under the Environment Protection Act. To overturn its recommendations is tantamount to going against your own ministry; which is what Jairam Ramesh did by unilaterally announcing a ‘moratorium’ on the commercialisation of Bt brinjal.

The Centre should clearly tell the Supreme Court that it is not opposed to either field trials or commercialisation of GM crops, subject to their receiving the necessary bio-safety and other clearances from the competent body: the GEAC. This clarification must be in the form of a joint affidavit from the agriculture and environment ministries. Resisting the formulation of a common position of all stakeholder departments amounts to undermining the country’s official policy on GM crops, which is not characterised by blind opposition but a qualified acceptance subject to scientific scrutiny. It is for the Centre to convey this stance unambiguously to the apex court if it wants the current uncertainty over the future of GM crop technology in India to end.

In the long run, the country needs anindependent biotech regulator, preferably a statutory authority empowered through legislation. This is unlike the GEAC, which is now practically a department of the environment ministry. The next government at the Centre should accord top priority to the passage of the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill, which will set the stage for field trials and commercial release of GM products to be decided on transparent scientific principles rather than ideological considerations or ministerial whimsy. A country whose food, feed and fibre requirements will only multiply in the coming years can ill-afford the luxury of saying no to a technology that has benefited its own farmers — the success story of cotton is proof of this. We need a regulatory regime that allows this to be replicated in more crops with multiple technology providers.

Published on February 28, 2014

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