Supreme Court’s expert panel of scientists for ban on herbicide tolerant crops for India
A committee of technical experts comprising scientists from top public research laboratories and academic institutions set up by the Supreme Court last year has changed the 10-year moratorium on field trials of Bt transgenics that it recommended in October 2012 to what appears to be an indefinite moratorium on food crops in its final report.
Based on “the examination/study of the safety dossiers, it is apparent that there are major gaps in the regulatory system. These need to be addressed before issues related to tests can be meaningfully considered. Till such time it would not be advisable to conduct more field trials,” the experts say in their final report without specifying any time frame.
In other significant recommendations, the panel finds herbicide-tolerant (HT) crops “completely unsuitable” in the Indian context and recommends that field trials and release of HT crops should not be allowed in India.
Noting that a single committee such as GEAC or RCGM—these are the main regulatory agencies for biotech crops—doing all the evaluation is not sufficient, the expert panel has called for the setting up of a secretariat comprising dedicated scientists with area expertise as well as expertise in biosafety. “This will require consultation with experts having experience at the international level in biosafety testing and evaluation of GM safety dossiers in reputed regulatory bodies,” the expert panel said, while suggesting that this should be done in collaboration with the Norwegian government.
Its reason for singling out Norway is that the Norwegian system has “an established commitment” and is one of the few attuned to considering socio-economic issues that would be important in the Indian context.
The report said the new regulatory body should have area-wise subcommittees/expert groups in the following fields: health (human and animal); environment and ecology; agro-economics and socio-economics; molecular biology; soil science and microbiology; plant biology and regulatory toxicology among other specializations.
The report signed by its original five members was not endorsed by Rajendra Singh Paroda. A former director-general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), he was nominated by the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) to fill the gap left by V L Chopra who did not serve on the Technical Expert Committee (TEC), as it is called, for unspecified reasons. Paroda, according to the letter sent by TEC to the Supreme Court on June 30, did not attend the final meeting of the committee in Chennai. Nor has he appended a dissent note.
The five TEC members are eminent scientists in their respective areas of specialisation: Imran Siddiqui, plant development biology scientist & group leader at the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology; P S Ramakrishnan, emeritus professor of environmental sciences and biodiversity from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University; P S Chauhan, genetics toxicology and food safety expert; P C Kesavan, former BARC scientist noted for his work on genetics toxicology and radiation biology who is currently distinguished fellow; M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai, and B Sivakumar, former director of National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad.
Since the single largest number of applications for field trials to GEAC is for Bt transgenics, including in food crops such as rice, the scientists are of the view that the safety of Bt transgenics with regard to chronic toxicity needs to be established before it can be considered safe for human consumption. In this regard it pointed out the largest deployment of transgenics worldwide is in soybean, corn, cotton, and canola, all of which are used primarily for oil or feed after processing.
“Nowhere are Bt-transgenics being widely consumed in large amounts for any major food crop that is directly used for human consumption.” The TEC could not find any compelling reason for India to be the first to do so. TEC has, therefore, reiterated its interim recommendations see that there should be a moratorium on field trials for Bt in food until there is more definitive information from sufficient number of studies as to the long-term safety of Bt in food crops.
GEAC had approved the commercial release of Mahyco’s Bt brinjal in 2009 but then environment minister Jairam Ramesh had put a moratorium on its release in the wake of widespread public protests against the first transgenic food crop in the country.
If TEC’s recommendations are accepted, crops which originate in India, such as brinjal, cannot be genetically modified. “To date, no GMO that is intended primarily and directly for food production has been commercially released into its centre of origin,” says the panel. It notes that the US has restrictions on the growth of Bt-cotton in Hawaii where a weed related to cotton is found. For good measure it emphasizes that cotton is not even a food crop.
Crops in their centres of origin and diversity often have “a deep cultural significance that can easily get lost when utilitatarian issues dominate the discourse”, says the 94-page report. Ceremonial and medicinal varieties can also be put at risk from GM crops by reduction of diversity and genetic purity, and to justify their release, “there needs to be extraordinarily compelling reasons and only when other choices are not available. GM crops that offer incremental advantages or solutions to specific and limited problems are not sufficient reasons to justify such release.”
In the present circumstances, there is no such compulsion, according to the scientists, who were categorical that release of GM crops for which India is a centre of origin or diversity should not be allowed.