seed companies testing genetically modified (gm) crops will now have to seek permission from village panchayats and state agriculture universities before carrying out field trials. Responding to allegations of biosafety violations (and raids on gm trial plots across the country), the Genetically Engineering Approval Committee (geac) has passed an order to this effect on December 13, 2006. geac is India's regulator for gm field trials and commercial release of crops.
The committee has decided not to issue any approval for field trials unless companies specify the locations. It has also asked all companies to submit their status reports related to field trials by mid-January, failing which their approval will be held back.Taking a stern step, geac has also decided to issue show-cause notices to companies under the Environmental Protection Act, 1986, for violating field trial regulations.
Besides, "no field trials will be allowed in Basmati rice, as it is a native species and India has a competitive advantage in the export of its premium aromatic rice," said B S Parsheera, the chairperson of geac.
Anti-gm activists and experts have welcomed the move. But they are apprehensive, as the literacy level is low at panchayat levels farmers hardly understand the difference between hybrid and gm crops. On the other hand, "state agriculture universities depend on gm companies to fund research projects and they can't be expected to take a bipartisan view of gm trial applications", said Dharmendra Malik from Bharatiya Kisan Union (bku), a farmer's union. The entire system is in place to facilitategm companies." geac has no clue about the number of field trials going on across the country and trials by companies like Monsanto and Mahyco have been kept under wraps," said Devinder Sharma from Forum for Biotechnology and Food Safety, Delhi. But M K Sharma, the general manager of Mahyco (Mumbai) begs to differ. "We have been informing the panchayats before conducting field trials and will always follow the government rules," said Sharma.
According to some, the inclusion of panchayats in genetic trials should have been worked out in a more planned manner. But the move, no doubt, restores the constitutional rights of panchayats over their natural resources.