GM blues

Controversy dogs Bt cotton clearance as debate over transgenics continues

Published: Tuesday 30 April 2002

So now, India joins another select club -- that of transgenic or genetically modified (gm) crops, when it cleared Bt cotton for commercial cultivation. Dire warnings from environmentalists at home and abroad notwithstanding. Coming as it is after five years of dithering over the decision, when the farmer suicide spate saw an upsurge and seed companies entering cotton fields on the sly, the move has left a number of sticky ends.

The most common arguments that biodiversity experts have against the decision are over genetic contamination, health impacts and monitoring. Fears abound that cross breeding by the transgenics may produce "super-weeds", the food security would be threatened by making farmers dependant on mncs for seeds as well as for pesticides and fertilisers, the traditional seed diversity is threatened and, more importantly, the long term health impacts are not too clear.

World over, though gm crops are on the rise, caution is being sounded against the use of gm products. The latest being in Britain, where scientists are asking regulators to get tougher.

The decision taken by India to join the gm bandwagon certainly has some twists to it. Take, for instance, the directive to plant refuge crops of non-Bt cotton plants along the periphery. While this stipulation makes it difficult for small holdings to plant gm crops, would it be sufficient to tackle the very real possibility of genetic contamination? Above all, how do the authorities hope to monitor it? The Mexican corn tangle is a case in hand, where despite a moratorium against planting gm crops, transgenic genes have found their way into the vital gene pool (Read: Alarm sounded?).

What makes this issue more serious is that none of the so-called scientific studies have been made public. Surely, if government means business it should make all the data it has on Bt cotton public. It is a question of genetic diversity. Given that India is one of the hot-spots for many crops the issue of genetic contamination is a serious one.

All these serious concerns need to be addressed urgently. Now that we have decided to take the plunge, regulation is vital. For this an independent organisation must set up a programme for long term monitoring of transgenic plants. And most critical of all, the information must be made available to all.

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