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India not Enforcing Safety Norms for GM Crops: UN Study

Neena Bhandari

Sydney - India faces a huge risk because safety norms on genetically modified crops are not being enforced, says a UN study, adding that it also makes the country vulnerable to bioterrorism attacks. The study’s Melbourne-based lead author Sam Johnston told IANS from Bonn: “India still has a huge problem of biosafety enforcement. Many farmers are using genetically modified crops without government approval. For example, it was recently reported in The Hindu Business Line that 28 percent of area in Gujarat was planted with illegal GM crops.”

While India has been trying to live up to its international obligations laid out in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB) seriously, it does face big implementation problems, risking biosecurity, the study warns.

The study was released in Bonn Tuesday night during the ongoing summit of the UN Frmaework Convention on Biodiversity.

As many as 100 developing countries are unprepared to effectively manage and monitor the use of modern biotechnologies, exposing the world community to serious biosafety threats, cautions the two-year study of internationally funded training programmes in biotechnology and biosafety.

The study also warns that the lack of an effective biosafety regime undermines the potential for developing countries to consider the role of biotechnology in critical areas such as addressing climate change.

Citing the lack of technical, policy and enforcement capacities in developing countries as “a potentially contributing factor to the spread of bioterrorism” - the deliberate release of naturally-occurring or human-modified bacteria, viruses, toxins or other biological agents - Johnston said: “If you don’t have the ability to monitor technology, the technology can be used for bioterrorism as you are not bio-secure”.

“Just rolling out the technology is not the answer as 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,” Johnston said.

Over the last 15 years nearly 5,000 biotech companies have been established worldwide, employing 200,000 people with an investment of $63 billion in 2005, out of which some $20 billion was spent on research and development.

“Food security is an enduring issue. Without an effective biosafety regime and with increasing use of genetically-modified crops in many developing countries, future trade bans and disruptions are inevitable.

“There are many instances when export crops have been contaminated by genetically modified crops when they are not meant to be. For example, recently Japan has banned rice coming from the US and China,” Johnston told IANS.

According to the study, “across biotech sectors, the industry secured 32 new product approvals in the USA in 2005. Patent demand has seen similar growth, with 188,213 biotechnology patents being issued in 1990, rising to a preliminary total of 299,163 patents by the end of 2003″.

The report by the Yokohama-based United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies (UNIAS) states that “there is no effective international system of biosafety at the moment” because of widespread training and management deficiencies in most countries of Africa, Central Asia, Oceania and the Caribbean.

The study also highlights the meagre resources available, which are being further slashed, from developed countries for biosafety capacity building in developing countries.

In the past 15 years, only an estimated $135 million have been invested globally by public and private sources from the developed world in capacity building in developing country.

The findings raise fundamental questions about “the extent to which capacity deficits are undermining the promise that advances in biotechnology would directly address the needs of the poor,” said UNU-IAS Director A.H. Zakri in a statement.

The use of biotechnology in agriculture and other sectors will certainly increase. There is a global will towards biosafety measures to complement the development of biotechnology, which is manifested in widespread ratification of the CPB which came into force nearly five years ago on Sep 11, 2003.

However, the study emphasises that consequences of dysfunctional biosafety regime need further examination.

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