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'Genetic contamination'
raises an alarm Outlook, February 2 2009

Genotypical Risk
* Genetic contamination of surrounding fields from unsafe trials could pollute natural crops.
* Not certain if GM food safe for human consumption.
* EU, Japan banned US rice in 2006 on discovery of genetic contamination.
* Alleged contamination of rice fields in Jharkhand needs investigation.

What was long feared may finally turn out to be true. Genetic contamination of natural crop strains because of unsafe field trials of GM crops has reportedly begun in Jharkhand, if Gene Campaign, a Delhi-based research group, is to be believed. It alleges that seed company Mahyco was careless in its field trials of GM rice in Saparong village, Ranchi district. This, Gene Campaign says, led to a second generation of illegal GM rice in and around the trial fields.
To back its claims, Gene Campaign cites a report by Gene Scan - a German laboratory—that confirms the presence of the Cry1Ac gene (isolated from a bacillus and introduced in Mahyco's GM rice to create resistance to borers) in the samples of rice grain and leaf that were sent to them for analysis by the group.

These samples, it says, were sourced in September '08, after the trials were over from second-generation rice plants that had come up in and around the trial site. It is mandatory that test sites are isolated to avoid any contamination and trial crops burnt to avoid any GM regrowth. The group says Mahyco did not follow these rules.

Suman Sahai, convenor of Gene Campaign, says that "even the fact that GM rice could get out of their trial site is damning for Mahyco. Nor is it clear if the GM rice introduced by Mahyco is safe for human consumption. It isn't known how far it has spread but the contamination has surely begun." This violation, she adds, is all the more serious because India is the centre of origin of rice with immense genetic diversity.

A Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) official says that the committee had not been sent an official complaint of contamination yet to warrant investigation. Mahyco, on the other hand, insists the trial field was "burnt on August 15" and the required 200 metre isolation maintained. There is no evidence, it added, to back the claim that the samples were sourced from spots anywhere outside the trial location. However Gene Campaign says that the GM crops were not burnt and the stalks remained.

Critics of GM technology in the country have repeatedly questioned the strength of our regulatory mechanism. Supreme Court-appointed GEAC special invitee P.M. Bhargava feels that "for all practical purposes there is none at all". "First of all, only 10 per cent of the tests that ought to be done are done. And even those 10 per cent are done either by the company (seeking to promote the genetically engineered substance) or on samples provided by the company," he says.

If GM contamination is detected in India, it will impact the country’s rice exports to Japan and the west, especially Japan and the EU, where governments are cautious on GM technology, given the widespread uneasiness their citizens have for GM crops and food. India, the second-largest rice producer in the world, exports more than four million tonnes of rice a year.

R.S. Seshadri, member of the All-India Rice Exporters Association and director of Tilda Ricelands, says the government needs to step in immediately to establish for sure if contamination has occurred. He says, "If yes, the law must be taken to its logical conclusion and the safeguards further tightened. If the government doesn't do it quickly enough, it will then need a clean-up operation like in the US, which had to spend millions of dollars after genetic contamination in rice was detected in 2006."