Biotech firms object to states getting a say in approving GM crop trials
BIOTECH companies in the agriculture sector have taken to a publicity blaze in recent months, splashing advertisements that extol the “inherent safety” of genetically modified (GM) crops along with organising a series of farmer meets and press conferences aimed at promoting transgenic technology as the “powerful and safe” way to improve farming and the environment.
The lead player in this is ABLE or the Association of Biotech Led Industries, which is “the collective face of the Indian biotech industry,” and its ginger group on agriculture, known as ABLE-AG. There is also the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness & Education (FBAE), headed by biotechnologist Chavali Kameswara Rao, which seeks to create scientific awareness about modern biotechnology and the benefits of transgenic technology. Three developments have triggered this blitz.
The first is that the normal stream of approvals accorded to trials of GM crops in India has been reduced, although not to a trickle but substantially this year, with the regulator, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), forced to bring the states into the contested terrain of approvals. This comes in the wake of a complaint made by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to the then Minister for Environment and Forests (MoEF) Jairam Ramesh that he had been kept out of the loop of approvals given to the Indian subsidiary of global seed giant Monsanto. The company had been conducting field trials of maize in a surreptitious manner, Kumar said (see ‘Who is Watching GM crops’, Down To Earth, May 1-16, 2011). Since then GEAC has been insisting on a no objection certificate (NOC) from states before companies can initiate field trials. This, says ABLE-AG chairperson V Ram Kaundinya, is not required by the law. “We are creating GEACs in every state, a second tier of scrutiny over the approval process and leading to delays.” Industry’s complaint is that they have lost kharif 2011 because of such delays (see ‘States may not have the competence’). As per MoEF sources, about 25 NOCS are yet to come in with only three states, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana and Gujarat, having given the permission. However, GEAC co-chairperson Arjula Reddy says, “There may be unintended delays but that is the rationale of our job. The trials coming up these days for approval are mostly for food crops, like maize and fruits. One has to be extra cautious.”
As to creating a second level of scrutiny, Reddy says there was no way of keeping the states out after chief ministers of several states wrote to Ramesh that they did not want GM technology in their states. “Agriculture is a state subject so the provision for NOCs came about so that the states can also have a say,” Reddy says. In any case, he points out that the law requires “states to have district and state-level biotechnology committees, comprising scientists and officials, whose mandate is to monitor trials. So I think NOCs should not be a big problem.”
The second development is that GEAC itself has been preoccupied by policy issues raised earlier by ABLE-AG and the National Seeds Association of India, forcing it to shelve the approval process at its monthly meetings in Delhi. Besides, violation of rules by Mahyco also took up some of its time. Since January few approvals have been given to biotech companies barring in July when 23 of the 25 applications for event selection and field trials that came before the regulator were approved; the rest two were shelved.
August, too, would have seen considerable activity since 16 applications for approval were listed in the agenda of the meeting held on the 10th. The decisions are yet to be approved by new Minister for Environment and Forests Jayanthi Natarajan. However, it is the third factor, the incipient introduction of the Biotech Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill in the Lok Sabha that has charged up the campaign by Rao and FBAE. Rao’s crusade to clear the “misconceptions” about the safety of biotech crops has picked up in recent weeks. He has roped in selected farmers to call for the expeditious clearance of the Bill and the setting up of BRAI, which will replace GEAC (see ‘In the wrong ministry?’). According to a press note issued after the mid-August meeting in Mumbai, Rao alleged that vested interests are misleading the public, media and policy makers, and that this is dangerous. “Biotech crops undergo rigorous safety assessments following international and national guidelines and no verifiable cases of harm have occurred.” All of which will not take away from the fact that state NOCs will remain part of the process.
|‘States may not have the competence’
V RAM KAUNDINYA, chairperson of the Association of Biotech Led Enterprises–Agriculture Group (ABLE– AG), the industry lobby, is finding the going tough as government brings in a new level of biosafety assessment for GM crops. In an interview to Down To Earth, KAUNDINYA talks frankly about the industry’s view of states getting a role in regulation
ABLE-AG has been complaining about the delays in approvals
The first part is that the no objection certificate (NOC) by a state is not required by the law. What we are saying is once you introduce an element which is not as per the policy, you are introducing elements which are outside the control of everyone. The second part is, we are creating a Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) in the states. It is becoming a second scrutiny.
So what is the problem?
We are not sure whether at the state level people have the necessary skills. It becomes more of a political decision than a scientific one. The delays are happening. NOCs have now come from two to three states. The other problem is some of the states have expressed their desire to be GM-free.
Are you saying it is not going to be easy for industry?
The procedure now is that each state has to give an NOC for each trial. It is a humongous task because there are 100 trials happening all put together. The state needs a team that should have time to go through the applications and decide whether to give permission. We believe kharif 2011 is gone and there were no trials.
What is causing the delay?
States want to look at the details—of the trait, its characteristics and the crop in which it will be introduced. Basically they want to go through the data which we submit to GEAC. It is a sort of duplication. But in some matters they may not have the competency to do that. They may have scientists from agricultural universities who can check some aspects but not all. This is a delay barrier rather than a value-added feature.
What is the reason for this new rule? Is it because of anti-GM activism?
Apparently it is a decision due to objections raised by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, followed by states like Kerala saying they do not want GM. It could be an opposition to a particular country or to a particular company.
Is this the result of an anti-MNC campaign?
We need more communication about what biotechnology is, what its benefits are. A lot of information is floating around in the media which is not right. Right now 50 event selection trials are going on in more than 10 crops. Most of these trials, 50 per cent, are by public institutions. There are many Indian companies working on this. This logjam is hurting Indian companies more than MNCs which have the capacity to withstand the delays.
You said something about trying to meet Nitish Kumar?
We have to find a convenient time to meet him. We have met officers, we have briefed them. But everybody says it Is a political decision so industry has to meet him.
Have you sought scrapping of the NOC rule?
We have represented to all the three ministries—agriculture, environment and science and technology. We have not had any success so far.