10 Dec 2001 THE INDIAN BIOSAFETY REGULATIONS ON GMOs UNDER TEST
There is general public and governmental sympathy for the Indian farmers in GMO regulation violation cases because many of them are not, and cannot, be expected to be knowledgeable of the highly technical aspects of the legislation. And, as indicated by the level of protection given to farmers in the recently enacted plant variety protection and farmers rights bill, it is unlikely they will be held responsible or made to suffer losses. Getting compensation from Navbharat Seeds, however, could take a long time, as the prosecution has to be conducted under due process of law. The Indian legal community, and especially the judiciary, is still not equipped to deal with such cases, which do not have any precedents. (ref.2218)
B. Venkateswarlu, CRIDA, Hyderabad India
INFORMATION SYSTEMS FOR BIOTECHNOLOGY
The government of India's biosafety guidelines on GMOs have been prematurely put to a severe test. While the Government has yet to approve the commercial cultivation of transgenic crops, scores of farmers in the Gandhinagar district of Gujarat planted GM cotton during the 2001 rainy season, posing the first serious challenge to the guidelines. With 1.7 to 1.9 million hectares under cultivation, Gujarat boasts India's second largest acreage of cotton and ranks first in production and productivity. A complaint was lodged with the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), which is the apex body under the Ministry of Environment and Forests that is authorized to approve the commercial release of GM crops. The complaint, filed by a representative of Mahyco, alleged that several farmers in Gujarat were cultivating Bt cotton without approval from the Government. Mahyco is a leading private seed company, which has been conducting large-scale field trials on Bt cotton since 1998 and is awaiting the approval of GEAC for commercial release.
GEAC immediately responded by ordering a thorough inquiry into the matter and to its surprise found that the complaint was true. This unauthorized cultivation of GM cotton came to the attention of the government of India around the last week of September. A preliminary inquiry revealed that the illegal cultivation is currently dispersed over nearly 10,000 ha. at six locations in the Gandhinagar district, and the crop is at flowering stage. The seeds were marketed by M/s. Navbharat Seeds, an Ahmedabad-based company that is in the business of producing and marketing hybrid seeds. The firm marketed the seeds as ‘Navbharat 151' and promoted it as a superior, bollworm-resistant variety, but did not disclose that Navbharat 151 is genetically modified. Initial tests by Mahyco and DBT confirmed that this variety is indeed GM and carries the same Cry1A(c) gene that was used by Mahyco in collaboration with Monsanto to produce their Bollguard® cotton.
Realizing that cultivation of a GM crop is a serious violation of India's biosafety regulations, GEAC ordered Navbharat seeds to appear on October 9th, 2001, and explain the reasons for the violation of the guidelines. However, the company expressed ignorance of the presence of the Bt gene in the cotton variety it sold and failed to appear before the Committee. GEAC again met on October 12th, 2001, and resolved to direct the Gujarat government to immediately destroy the GM cotton in all fields by uprooting and burning. The state government could not act on this directive, however, as it lacked sufficient information on the issue. The Indian biosafety rules require that a state biotechnology coordination committee must be constituted in each state to inspect, investigate, and exact penalties for violations of the statutory provisions; however, most states did not constitute these committees because GEAC so far has not given approval for any commercial release. When Gujarat state officials approached the farmers and informed them of the government of India directives, they vehemently voiced their opposition. Led by the Gujarat State Cotton Cooperatives Federation, the farmers forcefully argued for mercy, since, after two years of drought, they finally got a good harvest this year. They also demanded that the Government clarify why farmers were at fault and claimed they unknowingly bought this variety as they would any good cotton hybrid. Farmers also requested that if they eventually have to sacrifice their crop they receive compensation.
Meanwhile, GEAC once again summoned the Managing Director of Navbharat seeds, who appeared before the Committee on October 31st, 2001. He admitted that the Navbharat 151 variety was indeed genetically modified and that the seeds were not only planted in Gujarat but also other states like Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Punjab. He furnished details of the districts and names of the farmers who bought the seeds from him. After those revelations, Mr. A. M. Gokhale, Chairman of GEAC, decried the cultivation of GM seeds as "genetic pollution." He further stated that the government of India is taking the matter seriously and intends to prosecute the company under the 1989 Environmental Protection Act. Another point brought out was that the Navbharat 151 variety is not the same as Mahyco Bt cotton - morphological characteristics are different, which means a different parental line with the same Cry1A(c) gene had been used by the company in producing this hybrid.
Towards the end of October, both the governments of India and Gujarat realized the difficulty in implementing the order to destroy the GM cotton crops in farmers' fields. One impediment is the amount of support farmers have received from prominent people. For example, Mr. Sharad Joshi, noted farmers' association leader and Chairman of the WTO Task Force on Agriculture, blamed the government of India for these events and said the main reason for this situation is the inordinate delay in the approval of GM crops in the country, while other countries like China and Indonesia are reaping benefits from their use. However, not everyone in the country agrees with him. Non-governmental organizations such as’Kalpavriksh,' based in Pune, Maharashtra, warned the government that they should not yield to popular pressure and approve the seeds without properly assessing their environmental impact. They fully support the government orders to destroy GM cotton.
Meanwhile, GEAC learned that half the GM cotton produced by the farmers from early harvesting has already entered the market. In view of the Gujarat government's plea indicating the practical difficulty in destroying the cotton in farmers fields, GEAC instructed the state government to i) issue a public warning in regional newspapers on the issue, ii) retrieve seeds from farmers' houses and ginning mills to the extent possible and destroy them, iii) collect the lint, store it in a steel container, and send it to the Central Institute of Cotton Research at Nagpur for testing, iv) procure the yet-to-be harvested crops from farmers, and (v) uproot and burn the standing crop and sanitize fields. After the state government expressed its inability to pay compensation, the government of India decided to procure the cotton crop already in the fields by paying a total compensation of Rs. 5 crores (~USD 1 million). The Union Agriculture Minister ordered the Cotton Corporation of India to procure the GM cotton and store the lint for quarantine. The Government is not against growing genetically modified crops, but the safety guidelines have to be followed, the minister said.
By the first week of November, the government of India determined that GM cotton is also growing, primarily for seed production, on nearly 460 acres at several places in the Kurnool and Mahabubnagar districts of Andhra Pradesh. This cotton was obtained through an arrangement made between the company and farmers. The state government has ordered the agricultural commissioner to procure the entire seed from this area. No details are available on the crop alleged to be growing in Maharashtra and Punjab.
The entire episode raised several important questions concerning biosafety regulations in the country. Are the current guidelines adequate to deal with such situations? Can the Environmental Protection Act enable the government to deal with such violations? In India, GMO legislation was first enacted in 1990 and updated further in 1994, 1998, and 1999. The latest amendments deal exhaustively with transgenic crops. The only way to prosecute violators is under the Environmental Protection Act in a court of law, as the GEAC does not have judicial powers. Punishments under EPA are not very severe, and the process of prosecution itself is time consuming. In this GM cotton case, both the central and state governments have stated that the seed company is responsible for violating the law.
There is general public and governmental sympathy for the Indian farmers in GMO regulation violation cases because many of them are not, and cannot, be expected to be knowledgeable of the highly technical aspects of the legislation. And, as indicated by the level of protection given to farmers in the recently enacted plant variety protection and farmers rights bill, it is unlikely they will be held responsible or made to suffer losses. Getting compensation from Navbharat Seeds, however, could take a long time, as the prosecution has to be conducted under due process of law. The Indian legal community, and especially the judiciary, is still not equipped to deal with such cases, which do not have any precedents.
Perhaps the real casualty of this incident is damage that may have been caused to the establishment of thoroughly debated and carefully crafted biosafety regulations for India. The guidelines may indeed need more emphasis placed on punitive measures for violators, but the real solution may lie in creating more awareness of biosafety issues.
1. GM cotton fields alarms GEAC. Economic Times, October 11, 2001.
2. Gujarat Government in dark on Bt cotton issue. Economic Times, October 13, 2001.
3. GEAC orders destruction of Bt cotton crops in Gujarat. Economic Times, October 19, 2001.
4. Govt admits Bt cotton is better cotton, denies it to farmers. Indian Express, October 20, 2001. http://www.expressindia.com
5. Controversy over Bt cotton deepens. Economic Times, October 24, 2001.
6. Agri-ministry, biotech dept. disagree on Bt cotton issue. Economic Times, October 29 2001.
7. State should tread cautiously on Bt cotton. Times of India, October 30, 2001.
8. GEAC order on GM cotton comes a bit too late in the day. Economic Times, November 1, 2001.
9. Navbharat seeds might be taken into Supreme Court. Economic Times, November 11, 2001.
10. Center to procure GM cotton crop from Gujarat farmers. Economic Times, November 5, 2001.
11. Bt cotton into spinning mills in AP. Eenadu, November 14, 2001.