Sowing confusion

Authorities speak in different voices over the fate of genetically modified crops

Published: Tuesday 15 January 2002

in an apparent knee-jerk reaction to the farmers' demand to cultivate Bt cotton, the Union government plans to commercialise several genetically modified crops by the end of 2002. The government can meet this deadline only if it flouts its own procedures.

Manju Sharma, secretary in the department of biotechnology, has announced that the government will make Bt cotton seeds available to farmers from January 2002. Bt ( Bacillus thuringiensis ) cotton is genetically engineered to resist the American bollworm attack. In August 2001, the illegal sale of Bt cotton seeds by Ahmedabad-based Navbharat Seeds Private Limited sparked a major controversy.

Though the genetically modified (gm) variety of cotton is yet to be given the green light, overzealous authorities seem to have jumped the gun by allowing field testing of other gm crops such as rice, maize, tomato and cauliflower.

C R Hazra, agriculture commissioner, reveals: "We have given the nod for trials for four crops. With some 20-odd crops in the pipeline, we will gradually be clearing other crops over the next year as well." Sharma has gone a step further by declaring that 20 gm crops will be available for commercial use in 2002. Her statement contradicts the one made by the agricultural commissioner in which he said that trials for the crops would be conducted over a period of four years. No gm crop can be commercially launched unless it has gone through extensive field trials approved by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (geac). Field trials follow successful tests under greenhouse conditions. With such stringent controls in place, how can 20 untested transgenic crops be available for commercial use within a year?

Gene Campaign, a Delhi-based non-governmental organisation (ngo), filed a public interest litigation (pil) in the Delhi High Court in November 2001 asking for an independent regulatory authority to control the manufacture, use and movement of gm organisms and seeking a moratorium on their release until such a regulatory body is set up. "The existing body, the geac, has no representation from the civil society or the media. "Where then is the transparency?" asks Suman Sahai, president of Gene Campaign.

According to the the Cartegena Protocol, each genetically modified crop should be so segregated that the consumer is able to make out the difference. "Will we have green carts for the non- gm produce and red ones for the gm crops?" asks Sahai incredulously. Meanwhile, politicians -- ostensibly switching loyalties from the pesticide industry to the farmers' lobby -- are demanding an expeditious induction of gm crops.

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