NDA government ambivalent about calling off GM trials

Scientists ask Narendra Modi to call off trials of genetically modified food crops, caution against biotech companies being allowed to take away farmers’ seed sovereignty

 
By Aruna P Sharma
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

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GM food crops are back in national news after a brief lull. Following news reports earlier this month of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) allowing field trials of a number of genetically modified food crops, including rice, wheat, maize, cotton and sorghum, there are unconfirmed reports that these trials have been put on hold by the Union environment ministry, headed by Prakash Javadekar, under pressure of the RSS and Sangh Parivar outfits.

Some of the organisations, including Swadeshi Jagran Manch and Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, who met the environment minister, claimed that the field trials have been put on hold, according to a Times of India news report. But the minister was more cautious when questioned about it. He said no decision has been taken yet on the field trials. 

The development comes at a time when global reports don’t look too good for the GM lobby. According to a report, some Brazilian farmers are demanding compensation from biotech companies producing Bt corn (maize), saying their crops are no longer resistant to pests. Other countries in Asia too are grappling with the GM question, while there are reports of Bt brinjal crop failure in one district in Bangladesh.   

Meanwhile, scientists are also reportedly mounting pressure on the Narendra Modi-led NDA government to call off GM food crop trials. A website maintained by the Coalition for a GM-Free India, has posted on its website a letter written by eminent scientists like former GEAC member and founder member of CCMB, P M Bahargava and former chairperson of Kerala State Biodiversity Board, V S Vijayan.

Referring to the recent GEAC decision, the letter says that the committee has been following “unscientific approach towards environmental release of GMOs”. It says there is growing scientific evidence of the adverse impact of GMOs on human health and environment which has been repeatedly brought to the committee’s notice. 

The letter expresses concern over GM technology being used by biotech companies to gain monopoly over seeds. “One has seen that with Bt cotton, the only GM crop approved for commercial cultivation in our country. Within a decade of its approval, Monsanto, the largest Biotech seed company in the world, has taken total control of our cotton seed market through its proprietory Bt cotton,” the letter states.   

The letter also refers to recommendations of the first Agri biotechnology taskforce appointed by the government of India in 2004 which was by M. S Swaminathan. The taskforce report had “recommended that transgenics should be resorted to only when other viable options have been exhausted. The task force also recommended that a robust regulatory system should be put in place,” the letter states.

During the tenure of the previous UPA government also scientists had warned then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh against release of GMOs in India. A parliamentary committee on agriculture set up to look into the matter had slammed the government for its weak regulatory framework and said that GM crops have an impact on health and the environment and that these aspects were overlooked while approving Bt Brinjal trials in India. At the time the parliamentary committee had also considered submissions made by the director general of Centre for Science and Environment, Sunita Narain. Narain had said that any decision on GM crops must be considered in terms of India’s ability to regulate new technologies. Any decision must consider the issue of price and the control of new technologies that take agricultural decisions out of the hands of farmers, she had stressed.     

Before coming to power, the BJP in its election manifesto had promised that GM foods will not be allowed without full evaluation on its long-term effects on soil, production and biological impact on customers. But its ambivalent stand on the subject has left everyone guessing.

 

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