Biosafety breakdown in India / GEAC admits not enough toxicity studies (1/7/2006)

1.GEAC on large-scale violations of biosafety norms in field trials
2.6 years of biosafety breakdown in India

6 years on: "The same kind of secrecy, the same kind of lax monitoring…. and the same kind of violations" (item 2)

GEAC has admitted that it has not conducted enough toxicity studies. (item 1)

1.GEAC wants varsities to supervise on GM crop trials
ASHOK B SHARMA Financial Express, July 01 2006

NEW DELHI, JUNE 30: The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) on Friday decided to involve the state agriculture universities in bio-safety studies and field trials of transgenic crops. It deferred the decision on the proposal submitted by Mahyco asking permission for large scale multi-locational field trials of Bt Brinjal.

GEAC also deliberated on report submitted by the CD Mayee panel on Bt cotton and related issues. Mayee is at present the chairman of Agricultural Scientists Recruitment Board (ASRB) and is also the co-chairman of GEAC.

NGOs had complained about large-scale violations of biosafety norms in the field trials. The GEAC has taken up this issue seriously and asked the Mayee panel to suggest measures for strengthening biosafety norms, said Desh Deepak Verma of GEAC.

Farmers' organisations and NGOs had also cited reported cases of mortality in sheeps grazing over Bt cotton fields in Warangal district in Andhra Pradesh. In this, context, GEAC has asked the promoter agency for transgenic crops, department of biotechnology to investigate the causes of such deaths. It has also asked the Andhra Pradesh government to send factual reports on this situation.

GEAC has admitted that it has not conducted enough toxicity studies. It said that it would conduct toxicity studies on Bt cotton leaves. The proposed largescale field trials of four Bt brinjal hybrids developed by Mahyco is now held up. The NGOs had also alleged, quoting scientific evidences, that Bt brinjal may prove to be hazardous to health and environment.

Persisting on two left feet
by Keya Acharya
INDIA TOGETHER, 26 June 2006

Five and a half years ago, a visit to nine Karnataka farmers who were trialing Bt cotton showed regulatory breakdown. Six years on, despite fresh criticism by NGOs, scientists and the media, India's regulatory practice with transgenic crops appears to have offered a repeat performance of its 2000 conduct, says Keya Acharya.

26 June 2006 - Five and a half years ago, in December 2000, I visited the fields of nine cotton farmers in Bellary, Davangere, Koppal, Raichur and Shimoga districts of Karnataka selected by Monsanto-Mahyco in August-September 2000 to conduct Bt cotton trials. The seeds were Mahyco's hybrids incorporated with Monsanto's Bt gene Bollgard.

I had found no independent monitoring of the plots, in this case by the branches of the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) as stipulated by the state government. Eight of the nine farmers said nobody from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) had come to inspect their fields. GEAC is the central regulator under the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF). The ninth farmer, Ningappa from Koppal, said a group came with the agriculture department official and had a meeting with him once during the season. And a 'Balwinder Singh' signed himself in Ningappa's book as coming from Punjab and Hyderabad. [ARTICLE CONTINUES BENEATHTHIS TABLE]



Original issues from 6 years ago

• Inadequate maintenance of buffer plots;
• No knowledge of the genotype (variety of seed) received;
• Inordinate reliance on fertilizer/pesticide agents' directives by all farmers, not just Bt ones
No confidence in government agricultural extension advice, if any was extended.
Poor execution of integrated pest management (IPM) methods in the field, in 'non Bt' areas, pointed to inadequate dissemination by the agricultural extension system.
Farmers stated that they would try Bt cotton, regardless of opposition by political parties and organisations like the KRRS or others; that 2-3 crop seasons would tell them how the seed would fare.
Far better results from indigenous hybrid cotton varieties (i.e. those without one or more foreign parentage).

[ARTICLE CONTINUED] Not one of them said any government official took soil samples, or seeds or any material for testing. On querying about GEAC's lack of presence in the fields, the then Department of Biotechnology (DBT) Secretary Manju Sharma's reply was that GEAC was responsible along with Mahyco for ground monitoring, the implications of which sounded like a government-Mahyco collaboration.

Another fundamental flaw was of late sowing due to delayed distribution of seed by the company, which resulted in the crop having missed the peak bollworm infestation period.

Field violations and the government's lack of response to them were subsequently reported in 2002, by the Stockholm Environment Institute and the Centre for Budget & Policy Studies-Bangalore. They study looked at Mahyco field trials, interviewing Bt cotton farmers who had participated in the 2001 Mahyco trials together with scientists from the UAS. Their report highlighted continuing problems, including late supply of seeds by Mahyco, delaying the sowing season yet again. "It is curious that the delay should recur", said the report, considering the GEAC ordered this retrial due to NGO objections that the pre-2001 trials missed the peak bollworm season because of late sowing.

Also, farmers were permitted to harvest and sell the Bt trial crop and use its residues for various purposes, in apparent violation of GEAC conditions to Mahyco, raising serious questions of whether the GEAC was aware of how the trials were being conducted. In addition, DBT allowed Mahyco to set up, and identify, members for a monitoring committee, raising questions about DBT's credibility and competency in setting up independent regulatory systems - monitoring committee's checking of field trials thereafter desultory and not rigorous.

But why rehash old stories now? Six years on, despite criticism by NGOs, concerned scientists and media reports on inadequate monitoring, India's regulatory practice appears dismayingly to have offered a repeat performance of its 2000 conduct.

"The story is almost a repetition of the field trials [earlier ones]… The same kind of secrecy, the same kind of lax monitoring…. and the same kind of violations" says a field survey report compiled by a cross-country group of 20 people's organizations and NGOs that clubbed together to form the Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC).

Concerns over biosafety issues have even come from a pro-transgenic votary, Dr M S Swaminathan, well-known past advocate of the fertilizers, pesticides and hybrid crops of the 1970s that did, despite its failures today, make India self-sufficient in food. Swaminathan now looks at transgenic crops for higher nutritional yield from less land areas, less usage of water and chemicals, and causing less environmental stress.

"It is essential that an autonomous biotechnology regulatory authority, with a high degree of political, public, professional and media credibility be set up urgently," Swaminathan said in 2005, in reply to my query on the poor regulating mechanism in force in the country.

Swaminathan now rues what looks like a mess in the field. "Had we adopted a pro-small farmer biotechnology strategy, we would by now have had Bt-cotton varieties whose seeds farmers could keep and replant, unlike in the case of the hybrids marketed by private companies" wrote Swaminathan in The Hindu on 24 May 2006.

The central government's response has been to doggedly carry on, siding with the corporate seed industry that the protests are from self-serving NGOs with vested interests. The single biggest factor in the government-industry combine's favour is the ever-increasing acreage of Bt cotton, which it claims points to farmer-acceptance. But given the mixed results of Bt cotton so far, the increase could well be due to farmers wanting to experiment in the hope of bigger yields and better profits that Bt cotton has been hyped for.

Furthermore, the government's inability to control the untrammelled increase of fake, spurious Bt cotton seeds is worrying. Such seeds, known to have produced dismal results in 2004-05 season are common in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan. Farmers in Karnataka this year say they have learnt from the disaster that others suffered earlier from such seeds and now buy only from authorized sources.

The biotechnology magazine Biospectrum said in April this year that the Union Agriculture Ministry has advised state governments to set up check-squads and strictly enforce the Seeds Control Order 1983. The article also said that officials plead helplessness because loose seeds do not warrant any regulatory action. And yet, the Environment Protection Act 1986 already has clear guidelines barring the sale of genetically modified micro-organisms without mandatory approval of the GEAC, with penalty provisions. Section 15 of the EPA imposes imprisonment extending to five years for contravention or with a fine extending to Rs.100,000, or both. If contravention or failure continues an additional fine could, which may extend to Rs.5000 per day of failure.

Also, the new Seed Bill, currently in Parliament for debate, proposes to address this situation by stipulating that farmers can save their own seeds if they wish, but cannot sell them without government certification and branding.

The latest government move to keep up with the rapidly changing agricultural scenario in India is the Food Standards & Safety Bill 2005, slated in Parliament for passing. The Bill proposes to create a separate Food Safety and Standards Authority for regulation of GM foods, while the MOEF will continue with regulation of GM crops.

Still, the GEAC's regulation continues to remain suspect, given the ground realities on the fields. Even as farmers in Karnataka are increasingly turning to Bt cotton in 2006, there is no separate streamlined procedure for cultivation, transportation and sale of cotton, leading to contamination worries. It is the process from cultivation to to sale that gives rise to contamination risks. The procedure of growing, harvesting (especially), baling and transporting leaves wide scope for Bt and non Bt to mix.

Contamination is currently a worldwide problem. With the exception of the EU which has strict procedures for separation of GM and non GM, similar situations exist elsewhere. What's more, Indian farm sizes are so small and the entire system of cultivation, transportation and sale so decentralised that the risk here is higher. A strict system of separation from inception right down to the market yard is an expensive proposition that no country, the only exception being the EU, follows.

Even if a separation mechanism is chalked out in the near future, its implementation remains as suspect as GEAC's efficacy in regulatory monitoring. Contamination, therefore, is bound to happen. The question is, what do we do?

Keya Acharya
26 Jun 2006

Keya Acharya is a Bangalore based development and investigative journalist. This article is second in a series of three investigative reports.

Reference: Creating awareness to curb sale of fake Bt seeds, Narayan Kulkarni, Biospectrum, April 11, 2006.

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