Tuesday, February 9, 2016

#dnaEdit: Enact safeguards on cultivation of GM crops

Tue, 9 Feb 2016-06:40am , dna
Without setting up an independent regulator with statutory backing, the Centre’s attempts to expedite genetically modified crop cultivation are bound to fail
The controversy over allowing the commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) mustard has its roots in the central government’s repeated failure to introduce a more transparent biosafety regulatory regime. As a result, the government has been forced to defer its decision to allow cultivation of Mustard DMH-11, a transgenic hybrid developed at the Delhi University, which its creators say facilitates 20-30 per cent more yields than some of the better mustard varieties available now. Hybrid technology has been around for some decades now, and has been successfully introduced in maize, millets and even rice. But it is the use of foreign genes to prevent the mustard flower, which has both male and female reproductive parts, from self-pollinating, so that hybrids of two genetically different plants can be bred, which has invited the ire of activists and scientists opposed to genetic modification.

The economic imperative of cultivating a high-yielding mustard crop is on a solid footing. Domestic production of edible oils has just not been able to keep pace with demand, forcing India to resort to imports. Against an annual domestic production of around 7.5 million tonnes of edible oils, India imports 14.5 million tonnes. However, the question that arises is whether India has done enough to increase cropped area of mustard and push high-yielding varieties developed by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research before resorting to the heavily contested option of utilising GM technology. While activists contend that the only precedent of using GM was in a cash crop, Bt-Cotton, this ignores the fact that its by-products, cottonseed oil, is a major source of edible oil, and oilcake, is used as feed for animals. Moreover, much of the edible oil imported into India like rapeseed oil, sold under the Canola brand, and soybean and corn oil, are the products of genetic modification.

However, what has hurt the government is its remarkable caginess in placing the biosafety assessments on GM mustard in the public domain. The Centre has taken the line that biosafety data could not be released because of intellectual property rights issue. However, even the Central Information Commission has ruled that biosafety data must be released in the larger public interest. Even the possible approval of GM Mustard by biotechnology regulator GEAC (Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee) will lack credibility because of conflict of interest in the regulatory process. This has been red-flagged by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture too.

The Department of Biotechnology(DBT), which funds research into GM crops in both public and private sectors — and thus has a vested interest in GM promotion — enjoys significant leverage in the regulatory process. A DBT body analyses the biosafety data submitted by GM crop developers before forwarding it to the GEAC for final clearances. Even the GEAC is dominated by bureaucrats, being chaired by an additional secretary of the environment ministry and co-chaired by a DBT official.

The Centre’s failure to enact the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill and ensure statutory backing for the regulator before clearing field trials and commercial production is severely problematic. The Centre should have realised this after the failed attempt to introduce Bt-Brinjal.

The opponents of GM crops have also raised issues like the impact on native biodiversity, the liability of promoter companies for ecological damage, toxicity tests on GM crops, antibiotic resistance, and impact on public health. But the Centre’s unwillingness to engage with the scientific community on these issues have not helped its cause. As a result, activists ideologically opposed to GM crops have succeeded in thwarting the Centre’s efforts with science becoming the major casualty amid the claims and counterclaims of the two sides.

SOURCE : http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/editorial-dnaedit-enact-safeguards-on-cultivation-of-gm-crops-2175390

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