Swaminathan panel flayed for ambiguity (5/5/2004)

Excellent criticisms of the flawed Swaminathan proposals for GM regulation in India.

Swaminathan panel flayed for ambiguity
The Hindu, May 5 2004

New Delhi, May 5. (UNI): The Swaminathan panel's suggestion to vest powers with the Union Agriculture Ministry and Indian Council of Agricultural Research for the final clearance of commercial cultivation of transgenic crops till the autonomous Agricultural Biotechnology Regulatory Authority was set up, came in for sharp criticism from agriculture experts and NGOs like Greenpeace and Gene Campaign.

The panel which had held deliberations with the NGOs has also sought to reduce the country's existing official apex regulating authority, Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) under the Union Environment ministry as mere environmental clearing agency.

Gene Campaign convenor Dr Sumam Sahai, welcomed the need for "overhauling the regulatory system from its present appalling state" but she said the panel report did not ensure transparency in the Government that was a must for the proper evaluation of a genetically engineered (GE) crop to be allowed for commercial cultivation. Gene Campaign has already filed a PIL in the Supreme Court asking for formulation of a national policy on transgenic technology and overhaul of the regulatory system.

The mechanism for segregating GM and non-GM crops proposed by the panel that suggested creating different zones GM crops "does not appear to be feasible." There are unimpeachable facts regarding the contamination of native corn in Mexico by GM corn and also the proliferation of illegal Bt cotton seeds in many parts of the country. Therefore, the only way for protecting native germ plasm from foreign genes entailing negative impact like herbicide tolerance, is to disallow the GM version of that particular crop, Dr Sahai said.

Vandana Shiva from the Research Foundation said since unlike other technologies, GM technology had serious implications for life forms and social, economic and ethical concerns associated with it, its application should be allowed only after proper verifications. Like Dr Sahai, she also suggested instituting of a National Bioethics Commission to steward the technology with responsibility and sensitivity.

She described as "dangerous" the recommendation of the working group on agriculture headed by former Secretary RCA Jain, that once a transgene is tested for biosafety in a particular crop it need not undergo tests while implanted in other crops.

Greenpeace India Science Advisor Dr Ashesh Tayal, said the Swaminathan panel had deviated from the original perception of providing guidelines for formulating an official long-term biotechnology policy. Instead it suggested mere administrative changes and even went overboard defining the qualifications of the person who shall head the proposed ABRA.

The panel suggested changes in some modalities of operation while retaining the three-tier system in a more complicated form. It fails to clarify how the time-frame be reduced for evaluating a GM crop without compromising the biosafety aspects. It overlooked the needs of toxicological and other biosafety studies of new constructs.


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