Suman Sahai on GM regulation in India (11/5/2004)

Dr Dahai provides some of the most astute comments to date on the much critiised Swaminathan panel's recommendations for rejigging the regulation Comments on the Agbiotech Task Force Report

Suman Sahai

The report of the Task Force, which has collated the inputs provided by a variety of stakeholders, is an important step in trying to improve the system for implementing Agbiotech.

GEAC overhaul

One of the significant suggestions has been revision of the GEAC. In my view however, we need to take rather bold steps to change the nature of the regulatory system.

Even the proposed structure does not appear to be adequate. The regulatory structure should be demonstrably competent and independent to inspire confidence. It should be able not just to assess Biosafety, environmental and long term ecological impact but also other aspects like social and economic impacts, particularly the impact on small farmers, of the introduction of a particular GM crop. In my view, it would be best to divide the regulatory function into two parts, one Advisory, the other Statutory.

Advisory Body

The Advisory body should have a broad based multidisciplinary membership that includes all relevant scientific disciplines, social scientists, environmentalists, civil society groups, members of farming and adivasi communities, representatives of panchayati raj institutions, and legal experts. A person of the highest technical calibre who has experience in the regulation of GM crops should head the body

Statutory Body

The statutory body should be an independent body staffed by people skilled in Bio safety Assessment, Environmental Assessment and Environmental Impact Assessment. This body should have overall responsibility for all aspects of risk assessment, risk management, risk communication leading up to decision-making about the safety of a GM crop for the environment, human and animal health and post release monitoring.  It is important to ensure that there is no conflict of interest and rules should be framed in a clear and unambiguous manner so that it is not possible to stack the Agency with any particular kind of people. Clear-cut channels should be created for the public to participate in the decision-making process and to voice concerns. There should be an annual review of the decisions taken on GM products and the rationale for these decisions. This review should be presented to Parliament.

Overhauling the regulatory system from its currently appalling state should be high priority. After repeated unsuccessful attempts to engage with the government to dialogue on transparency, access to information and public participation, and after the DBT rebutted every single recommendation to emerge from a Multistakeholder national symposium on GM technology, Gene Campaign has filed a PIL in the Supreme Court asking for a Multistakeholder discussion to formulate a national policy and a thorough overhaul of the regulatory system.

Segregation of GM and non-GM crops.

It is good that the report acknowledges the need for protecting agbiodiversity specially for crops for which India is a centre of origin and diversity, particularly rice. However the proposed mechanism for segregating GM and non-GM crops by zones does not appear to be feasible. If the cultivation of GM rice is permitted in certain areas but not in the diversity rich areas of Orissa, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, there is no way of preventing GM rice landing up there. Foreign genes in that case are bound to move to wild relatives of rice in its centre of origin. We have seen the speed with which the illegal Bt cotton originally put out by Navbharat seed company has spread to almost all cotton growing areas, despite the fact that it is not allowed to plant it. Similarly, there is contamination of native corn in Mexico, with GM corn, despite the ban on the cultivation of GM corn in the country. The principal source is illegal GM corn seeds brought in from the US. Zoning or segregation is unlikely to work. The only way of protecting native germplasm from foreign genes with likely negative impacts, like herbicide tolerance, is to disallow the GM version of that particular crop.

Given the fact that GM technology has implications for life forms like no other technology before and the fact that there are social, economic and ethical concerns associated with it, it would be wise to set up a National Bioethics Commission to steward this technology with responsibility and sensitivity. This could be added to the recommendations of the task force.

The most alarming suggestions to the Task Force come from the Working Group under RCA Jain, the former Agriculture Secretary. This submission is full of platitudes, endorsing the position of the Agbiotech industry, rather than recommending strategies for addressing the challenges facing Indian agriculture. Rather than advocating a cautious case-by-case approach, Jain’s group recommends rushing through release of GM crops, "in order to cut down wastage of time". There is no mention of the precautionary principle, no social and economic aspects, fixing liability for failure or including the public in decision-making.

Perhaps the most dangerous suggestion to come from the Agriculture Ministry however, is that once a gene ( for example, Bt ) has been tested in one variety, say cotton, it need not undergo tests in any other crop like cauliflower, or rice or potato. These varieties, it has been recommended, should be released without testing. This reckless suggestion panders to the industry, jeopardising the interests of farmers, consumers and the nation’s biodiversity. The approach is bad science and against all principles of sound regulation. In addition, it does no credit to the Working Group to echo the industry line that critics of GM technology have "vested interests", and that even informed members of the public are "uninformed". It would be advisable for members of the Agriculture Ministry and the ICAR, to first educate themselves in a spirit of humility, before calling everybody names.

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