The push for GM crops in India involves collusion between the government and the biotech industry

1.Nip this in the bud
2.What we need is a biosafety authority
1. Nip this in the bud
Aruna Rodrigues
The Hindu, August 12 2013

*Genetically modified crops, whose ecological effects are irreversible, could become a mainstay of Indian agriculture thanks to collusion between the government and the biotech industry

The final report of the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee (TEC) on field trials of genetically modified crops is packed with revelations on what is wrong with institutional governance and regulation in India when it comes to GMOs (genetically-modified organisms). The report’s release late last month came days before biotech giant Monsanto decided not to submit any further applications for GMOs to the European Union, a decision forced by non-acceptance on scientific grounds and rejection by civil society.

Remarkable consensus

The TEC Final Report (FR) is the fourth official report which exposes the lack of integrity, independence, and scientific expertise in assessing GMO risk. It is the third official report barring GM crops or their field trials singularly or collectively. This consensus is remarkable, given the regulatory oversight and fraud that otherwise dog our agri-institutions. The pervasive conflict of interest embedded in those bodies makes sound and rigorous regulation of GMOs all but impossible.

The four reports are: The "Jairam Ramesh Report" of February 2010, imposing an indefinite moratorium on Bt Brinjal, overturning the apex Regulator’s approval to commercialise it; the Sopory Committee Report (August 2012); the Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) Report on GM crops (August 2012); and now the TEC Final Report (June-July 2013). The TEC recommends that in general, there should be an indefinite stoppage of all open field trials (environmental release) of GM crops, conditional on systemic corrections, including comprehensive and rigorous risk assessment protocols. The report includes a specific focus on Bt food crops.

It also calls for a ban on the environmental release of any GMO where India is the centre of origin or diversity. It also says herbicide tolerant (HT) crops, targeted for introduction by the regulator, should not be open field-tested. The TEC “finds them completely unsuitable in the Indian context as HT crops are likely to exert a highly adverse impact over time on sustainable agriculture, rural livelihoods, and environment.”

The PSC report which preceded that of the TEC was no less scathing: it was “ [...] convinced that these developments are not merely slippages due to oversight or human error but indicative of collusion of a worst kind [...] field trials under any garb should be discontinued forthwith”.

Sound science and factual data form the basis of the TEC decisions. There is practical and ethical sense too. The TEC insists that the government bring in independence, scientific expertise, transparency, rigour and participative democracy into GMO regulation and policy. The accent is on bio-safety.

Assessment and performance

GMOs produce “unintended effects” that are not immediately apparent and may take years to detect. This is a laboratory-based, potent technology, described by WHO as “unnatural.” The risk assessment (RA) protocols for GMOs are an evolving process to be performed by qualified and experienced experts who must be responsive to the latest scientific knowledge. The fact is that GMOs involve us in a big experiment in the idea that human agencies can perform adequate risk assessment, which, it is expected, will deliver safety at every level/dimension of their impact on us — the environment, farming systems, preservation of biodiversity, human, and animal safety.

After 20 years since the first GM crop was commercialised in the U.S., there is increasing evidence, not less, of the health and environment risks from these crops. Furthermore, we now have 20 years of crop statistics, from the U.S., of two kinds of crops that currently make up over 95 per cent of all GM crops cultivated globally, (like Bt cotton) Bt and HT crops. The statistics demonstrate declining yields. GM yields are significantly lower than yields from non-GM crops. Pesticide use, the great “industry” claim on these GM crops, instead of coming down, has gone up exponentially. In India, notwithstanding the hype of the industry, the regulators and the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), Bt cotton yield is levelling off to levels barely higher than they were before the introduction of Bt.

It takes roughly $150 million to produce a GMO against $1 million through conventional breeding techniques. So where is the advantage and why are we experimenting given all the attendant risks? We have hard evidence from every U.N. study and particularly the World Bank-funded International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge and Science for Development Report, which India signed in 2008. The IAASTD was the work of over 400 scientists and took four years to complete. It was twice peer reviewed. The report states we must look to small-holder, traditional farming to deliver food security in third world countries through agri-ecological systems which are sustainable. Governments must invest in these systems. This is the clear evidence.

Conflict of interest

The response to the TEC Final Report came immediately, with the Ministry of Agriculture strongly opposing the report. The MoA is a vendor of GM crops and has no mandate for regulating GMOs. The same Ministry had lobbied and fought to include an additional member on the TEC after its interim report had been submitted. That "new" member came in with several conflicts of interest, his links to the GM crops lobby being widely known. His entry was in fact a breach of the Supreme Court’s mandate for an independent TEC and provoked me to file an affidavit in the court, drawing attention to this. Oddly enough, he did not sign the final report, or even put up a note of dissent. This allowed the final report, then, to be unanimous; as indeed was the TEC’s Interim Report submitted by the original five members.

The Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) promotes PPPs (Public-Private-Partnerships) with the biotechnology industry. It does this with the active backing of the Ministry of Science and Technology. The MoA has handed Monsanto and the industry access to our agri-research public institutions placing them in a position to seriously influence agri-policy in India. You cannot have a conflict of interest larger or more alarming than this one. Today, Monsanto decides which Bt cotton hybrids are planted — and where. Monsanto owns over 90 per cent of planted cotton seed, all of it Bt cotton.

All the other staggering scams rocking the nation do have the possibility of recovery and reversal. The GM scam will be of a scale hitherto unknown. It will also not be reversible because environmental contamination over time will be indelible. We have had the National Academies of Science give a clean chit of biosafety to GM crops — doing that by using paragraphs lifted wholesale from the industry’s own literature! Likewise, Ministers in the PMO who know nothing about the risks of GMOs have similarly sung the virtues of Bt Brinjal and its safety to an erstwhile Minister of Health. They have used, literally, “cut & paste” evidence from the biotech lobby’s “puff” material. Are these officials then, “un-caged corporate parrots”?

Along with the GM-vendor Ministries of Agriculture and Science & Technology, these are the expert inputs that the Prime Minister relies on when he pleads for “structured debate, analysis and enlightenment”. The worrying truth is that these values are absent in what emanates from either the PMO or the President.

Ministries, least of all “promoting” Ministries, should not have the authority to allow the novel technology of GMOs into Indian agriculture bypassing authentic democratic processes. Those processes require the widest possible — and transparent — consultation across India. With GMOs we must proceed carefully, always anchored in the principle of bio-safety. Science and technology may be mere informants into this process. After all, it is every woman, man and child, and our animals, an entire nation that will quite literally have to eat the outcome of a GM policy that delivers up our agriculture to it: if a GMO is unsafe, it will remain irreversibly unsafe. And it will remain in the environment and that is another dimension of impact.

(The author is the lead petitioner in the Supreme Court for a moratorium on GMOs and in which case the TEC was formed. She can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)
2. What we need is a biosafety authority
Ramanjaneyulu G. V.
Live Mint, August 11 2013

*The BRAI Bill fails to address concerns surrounding GM crops at a time when opposition to GM is growing

A draft law to create a Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) has been tabled in Parliament. If approved, it will replace the existing Environment Protection Act (EPA), 1989 rules and BRAI will replace the genetic engineering appraisal committee (GEAC) as a regulatory body.

The BRAI Bill fails to address the concerns surrounding genetically modified (GM) crops in India at a time when opposition to GM is growing in the country. There are two key assumptions on which the Bill is based: one that modern biotechnologies (read GM) are essential for improving agriculture, and two, their safety can be easily ensured by following certain protocols and be regulated.

Let’s see how true the assumptions are.

Almost 17 years after the introduction of the first GM crop in the world, only four crops—soybean (47%), maize (32%), cotton (15%) and canola (5%)—account for 99% of GM crops under cultivation globally. Only five countries (the US, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and India) account for 90% of the total GM cropped area. The rest of the world seems to be improving agriculture even without GM.

In the past 17 years, there have been umpteen reports and research papers that highlight various biosafety problems of GM crops. In India, the first and only GM crop, Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton was introduced in 2001 with the promise that it will reduce farm distress by reducing expenses on pesticides. After 11 years, we still find that 68% of the farmers’ suicides are from four major cotton growing areas. The use of pesticides initially came down due to reduction in bollworm infestation but increased again because of rising sucking pest attacks. There have been several other problems such as skin allergies to agricultural workers during the stage when the bolls burst, and a fall in soil fertility due to the impact on soil microorganisms.

When Bt cotton was introduced, the biosafety tests conducted before commercialization claimed that contamination is not a major issue. But when the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, released its version of Bt cotton, it was found to be contaminated with Mahyco Monsanto’s proprietary trait and had to be withdrawn from the market. The contamination, in hindsight, was inevitable. Given that India is a centre of origin, and a major centre of diversity for important food crops such as rice and brinjal, such contamination risks cannot be simply wished away.

The parliamentary standing committee on GM foods and the technical expert committee appointed by the Supreme Court have both pointed out these problems and have suggested a ban on further field trials and commercialization of GM crops till an improved regulatory system is put in place.

Instead of addressing these issues, the BRAI Bill only dilutes the current regulatory system, overriding the role of state governments in decision-making, and bypassing citizens’ right to information by including a clause on confidentiality of commercial information. India being a signatory to the Nagoya—Kuala Lumpur supplementary protocol on liability and redress is mandated to establish a strong liability and redress mechanism. But the penal clauses for erring in this Bill are extremely weak.

The BRAI Bill in its current format will do more harm than good. We must conceive of an alternative regulatory regime around GM crops with the primary mandate of protecting our health and environment from the risks of modern biotechnology. Such a regime should be based on the precautionary principle and must lay down protocols for independent testing, post-marketing monitoring, and rigorous assessments of long-term health and environmental impact of all GM crops.

Ramanjaneyulu G. V. is an agricultural scientist working with Centre for Sustainable Agriculture. Comments are welcome at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.