India infected with bad-idea virus / Forget the hype, Bt cotton is nothing special, says Indian Minister (14/6/2004)

The most telling point about the article below from Science - Report Says India Needs Stronger, Independent Regulatory Body - is not to be found in the text but in the caption to an accompanying image of an Indian woman picking cotton. The caption reads, "Pick up the pace. A new body might help some GM crops get to farmers more quickly than did Bt cotton."

And that indeed is what, despite all their complexity and careful window dressing, the Swaminathan panel's efforts to rejig the Indian regulatory system for GM crops seem to really have been driven by - a frustration that industry has not been able to commercialise its products more rapidly.

The same drive has led to the heads of the current regulatory body, the GEAC, being moved on in rapid succession, after they had shown too great a sense of caution over the commercialisation issue.

This brings us back to the "bad idea virus", to use the phrase recently coined by an economist for the illusion of gaining economic success for one's locality from biotechnology that seems to grip our politicians and bureaucrats, leading them to rush around wooing the industry in an effort to receive the magic touch of its blessing. http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=3772

The true character of the bad idea virus is highlighted as soon as one examines the reality of Bt cotton commercialisation in India. The problem over its introduction does not appear to have stemmed from excessive bureacratic, political or scientific caution but Bt cotton's inability to deliver. http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=3772

Bt cotton performed poorly or worse in its first year of commercial production, according to more or less all sources, other than Monsanto and the pro-biotech lobby. In its second year, in excellent growing conditions, according to an Indian Minister, quoted in the second article below, "in Andhra Pradesh both Bt cotton and non-Bt cotton have equally performed well during 2003 season."

So we have a technology that delivers agricultural products whose performance lies somewhere between poor and no better than what is currently available, yet which is highly controversial and carries significant risks beyond the agronomic. How does this argue for speeding up GM crop acceptance?

Ominously, however, the bad-idea virus continues to lay waste its victims. According to the first article below, "The new government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should be favorably disposed to key recommendations in the task force, which was set up in 2003 by the previous government. Science minister Kapil Sibal has already talked about the need for regulatory reform to attract greater foreign investment (Science, 28 May, p. 1227), and agriculture minister Sharad Pawar has said that the country's agbiotech policy must ensure food security. That is code for increased productivity through genetic engineering."

India's leaders are clearly infected in the manner of Dubya's bro and Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush. Florida, according to the recent Associated Press article on the bad idea virus, has "made one of the biggest - and riskiest - moves to lure biotech". Jeb says of the economic evidence for biotech being a money-losing venture, "It's always good to have skeptics, but I like to be on the dreaming side. It's a lot more fun on the dreaming side of the road." A lot more risky too. http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=3772

1.Report Says India Needs Stronger, Independent Regulatory Body
2.'No Difference Between Bt, Non-Bt Cotton Output'

1.Report Says India Needs Stronger, Independent Regulatory Body
Science, VOL 304, 11 JUNE 2004
http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/304/5677/1579a [subscription]

NEW DELHI—A blue-ribbon panel has recommended that India spend $300 million on an autonomous, expert body that would regulate agricultural biotechnology. Such an independent authority would both speed up the approval process and make it more transparent, according to a report delivered last week to the Ministry of Agriculture. But critics say that the small number of genetically modified crops in the pipeline doesn't warrant such a major change in the current system and that the money could be better spent on research to improve existing crops.

"Public regard and satisfaction for the regulatory systems currently in place are, to say the least, low," asserts the task force, which was chaired by eminent agriculture scientist M. S. Swaminathan.

The present oversight body has had six chairs in the past 2 years and is bogged down in bureaucratic infighting. A National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority would help restore credibility to the process, the task force argues, as well as spur investment in the field by overseeing a venture fund for new technologies. (By comparison, the biotechnology ministry’s annual budget is less than $75 million.) In the interim, Swaminathan says, the government should appoint "an outstanding biosafety and technical expert" to handle genetically modified (GM) organisms.

The task force recommends that transgenic research should not be pursued on high-profile domestic crops and commodities such as basmati rice, soybeans, and Darjeeling tea. The report also proposes a ban on genetically engineered crops from designated biodiversity hot spots.

Breeding for herbicide tolerance should be given low priority, it adds, because deweeding provides employment for a large number of landless families. At the same time, the panel believes that derivatives of transgenic crops that have passed muster "need not always be evaluated for biosafety to the same extent again." The 50-page report also suggests creating a mechanism to segregate, certify, and label GM and non-GM products.

The only GM crop now in the hands of Indian farmers is a Monsanto variety of Bt cotton, although research is under way on more than a dozen plants. That modest level of activity suggests that "this is not the opportune time to tinker with the regulatory system," says Sushil Kumar, a geneticist at the National Centre for Plant Genome Research in New Delhi and a former co-chair of the existing Genetic Engineering Approval Committee. "Do not upset the apple cart."

The report has drawn criticism from both industry and citizen groups. Although seed companies like the idea of regulating the gene, not the crop, they were hoping the task force would describe each step in the regulatory process. Devinder Sharma, chief of the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security in New Delhi, worries that giving all authority to one body invites corruption. (The current system has three tiers, with approval required from a different group at each level.)

The new government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should be favorably disposed to key recommendations in the task force, which was set up in 2003 by the previous government. Science minister Kapil Sibal has already talked about the need for re

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