New Delhi - In the headlong rush to introduce GM crops, India is ignoring protocols on safety.
Quite soon, Indians could be eating the first of the genetically modified (GM) food crops that are being tested in the country. This will be the brinjal or eggplant, as ubiquitous a vegetable as you can find here. The brinjal is in the vanguard of a long line of genetically engineered food crops that will in due course hit the market. From the staple rice and wheat along with potatoes, tomatoes, chillies and mustard to a wide range of vegetable and fruit - okra, eggplant, cabbage, beetroot, gourds, radish, squashes and cantaloupes not to forget bananas and citrus fruits - Indian agriculture is on the verge of a GM revolution. Several of these crops are at advanced stations of the testing trail as the world's agriculture biotech giants and a handful of Indian companies set about changing the farming landscape in India.
Interestingly, many more public sector laboratories and institutions than private companies have jumped on to the GM foods bandwagon after the success of GM cotton, better known as Bt cotton because it derives its name from the bacillus that protects it from pests. Even Delhi University, not specially known for its scientific bias, has a GM project for creating a pest-resistant variety of rice.
The problem is that if you are among those who have reservations about GM food you will never know if it's the natural or the GM variety that you are eating. As of now there is no provision for labelling or segregation of such items, just one of the more conspicuous gaps in the monitoring and regulatory set-up in the country. The bigger worry is that even if you are all right with GM foods, there is no guarantee that adequate precautions are being taken to put these food through the proper tests and scientific scrutiny.
In fact, the regulatory framework is so riddled with holes that a just released UN report has cited India, along with other developing countries, for lack of adequate technical and enforcement capacities. "The spread of illegal GM crops in Brazil, China and India —countries that have invested heavily in developing their capacities — demonstrate the challenges of managing biotechnology and implementing biosafety regulations. The inability of countries to properly monitor the trade in GMOs, let alone properly test for contamination, is troubling and threatens the viability of the international biosafety system. The rapid expansion of GM crops in the developing world means that such contamination may render the whole system irrelevant."
The Yokohama-based United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies (UNIAS) points out in its report on biotechnology and biosafety that the wide prevalence of illegal GM crops in India is cause for concern and could result in trade bans as happened recently when Japan banned import of rice from the US and China because of GM contamination.
One of the authors of the report Sam Johnston of Melbourne has been quoted by a news agency as saying that India faces a huge risk because safety norms on GM crops are not being enforced. "If you don't have the ability to monitor technology, the technology can be used for bioterrorism as you are not bio-secure". The expert also cautioned that "Just rolling out the technology is not the answer as an enormous number of people are resistant to it. In the absence of a biosafety mechanism, people are justified in worrying about the impacts of genetically modified technologies."
This certainly is the case in India where protests from a host of voluntary organisations, scientists and farmers has been the norm since Bt cotton made its appearance in 2001. Three public interest litigations (PILs) have been filed since 2002, starting with that of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology headed by environmentalist Vandana Shiva, followed in 2004 by Suman Sahai's Gene Campaign and in 2006 by a group of food and environmental activists led by Aruna Rodrigues. These groups are not the extreme fringe of the anti-GM lobby which terms such food as Frankenfoods; most of them are calling for a proper safeguards and a clearly enunciated policy to ensure that India's food security is not compromised further on account of the headlong rush into untested waters. They contend that the agri-biotech industry in India, mostly global seed giants who were formerly in the business of purveying dangerous pesticides, have been steamrolling policy makers and the regulatory set-up, specifically the Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee (GEAC), into taking dangerous shortcuts on the regulatory mechanism. Their biggest concern: the toxicity and allergenic tests that are so crucial before approving GM crops for use by farmers.
Has there a heedless rush into genetically engineered crops? After all, India is a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB) which is binding on all countries that experiment with genetically engineered organisms and claims to respect all its provisions. Not at all, says Sahai who recently attended the May meeting on the CPB in Bonn. She lists at least a dozen major shortcomings and accuses officials of submitting false data on the government's implementation of the protocol.
India appears to have been dazzled by the prospects held out by farm biotechnology. It is said to have the largest biotech research programme in the developing world with as many 14 public sector laboratories carrying out research on virtually every crop from groundnuts and beans to melons and cauliflower. It's part of a long-term strategy to generate employment of one million and revenues of $5 billion from the biotechnology sector. Giants like Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences, a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Dow Chemical Company — the latter, incidentally, has just got approval for multi-locational field trials of Bt cotton — along with a clutch of private Indian companies are pumping substantial investments into the sector. The corporate lobby, which has grouped itself as the All India Crop Biotech Association, argues that the precautionary approach should not act as a stumbling block to the entry of new GM technology.
But a central concern that is brushed aside by officialdom is the lack of a policy on genetic engineering in crops for which India is a centre of origin. The list starts with rice and includes legumes (moong and urad), vegetables (eggplant, okra, bottle gourd) and fruits (mango, melons). The CPB calls for extreme caution on this point since the maximum genetic diversity of such crops exists in these centres. That's why most countries do not allow GM varieties of crops to which they are centres of origin: Mexico for corn, China for soyabean, Peru for potato, etc. No such concerns are evident in India.
At the heart of the controversy is the GEAC, the clearing house for all approvals. One of India's best known scientists, Pushpa M. Bhargava, who has been made a special invitee to the GEAC thanks to a Supreme Court ruling, says he is appalled by the slipshod way it functions. Bhargava, credited with being the architect of biotechnology in India, is best known for setting up the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad which is still one of the few world class institutions that the country can boast of.
Bhargava's contention is simple. The risks of GM food, he says, are real and serious, "a fact that no scientist of any calibre will dispute." But at the same time, each of the risks can be assessed and should have been done by the GEAC which has failed to do most of them. Instead even those risks that have been assessed by the GEAC have done in a completely unacceptable manner. The entire toxicity and allergenic reports have been submitted by the promoter company and this has been accepted by the regulators without any validation by an independent source. "How can this be?" demands Bhargava, whose interventions in the GEAC are subtly changing some of the rules of the game.
There have been frequent allegations that quite of the GEAC members are compromised because they are themselves developers of GM crops (mostly in public sector laboratories) or have links with organisations sponsored by the global biotech industry (see box). For instance, C D Mayee, who is co-chair of the GEAC, is also a member of the board of ISAAA, an international institution promoted by biotech giants like Monsanto, DuPont and Bayer. GEAC has steadfastly refused to meet Business Standard or answer any of the queries sent to its member-secretary.
But the AICBA defends the GEAC which, the association's executive director R. K.Sinha says, "has travelled a long distance since they started in 2001". Insisting that state should not be a stumbling to new technology, Sinha, a former secretary to the government, says GEAC has learned to be more responsive to industry. Approvals, which used to take 5-7 years, are now given in 2-3 years. He uses the experience with cotton to makes a strong case for GM technology. From being a large importer India has become net exporter of cotton, while cotton yields have risen 12.8 percent since the introduction of Bt cotton six years ago.
For India, the immediate worry should be the concerns raised by the UN report and the PILs. Surely, the provisions of the Cartagena protocol cannot be all that taxing for a country that prides itself on its cutting edge technology and its sophisticated regulatory system?
(Current and present GEAC members who have GM interests) Dr. B. M. Khadi, Director, Central Institute for Cotton Research, which has developed a GM cotton variety Dr Deepak Pental, Vice Chancellor, Delhi University, is working on GM mustard Dr C D Mayee, Co-Chairman of GEAC is also on the board of ISAAA, that is promoted by biotech companies Dr Akilesh Tyagi, Professor, and Director, Interdisciplinary Centre for Plant Genomics & Department of Plant Molecular Biology, University of Delhi, that is working on GM rice, tomato and wheat