Need for a national biotechnology protection authority

In recent times, thanks to the assertion of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and the immediate acquiescence by the then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, a significant change in the regulatory regime related to GM crops came into effect in India — for any field trial to take place, state governments have to give an NoC (no objection certificate). As state governments are slowly considering the issue of GMOs in their food and farming and coming to a conclusion that they would rather invest in other technologies than promote a controversial, unproven technology and are disallowing field trials in their states (at least 7 states have articulated this stand so far), the Centre is now doing a volte-face.

The volte-face is from the Ministry of Science and Technology, which is a promoter of GM crops. The ministry sought to introduce a new bill in parliament on August 17 – ironically the day the nation was caught in a debate inside and outside parliament on citizens’ democratic right to dissent and protest – called the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill. The bill has an ‘expediency clause’ right at the beginning, that seeks to keep regulatory control with the Union government, in the name of “public interest”, even as Chattisgarh became the latest state to disallow GM trials in a diversity-rich state.

The biggest irony in the current scam-laden environment in India is that this bill seeks to make promoters of GM crops into regulators, presenting an inherent conflict of interest.

While this bill seeks to replace the current regulatory regime around GMOs (as created under the EPA’s 1989 rules and not backed by a separate statute for the purpose), it ignores the only mandate of the existing regime — to protect our health, environment and nature from the risks of modern biotechnology. The BRAI Bill takes a very euphoric and conclusive positive tone around modern biotechnology, despite the scientific world and entire nations being divided on the subject.  BRAI seeks to create an authority that will act as a clearing house for modern biotech applications, and while discussing corruption, let us not forget that becoming a clearing house is always an opportunity for trying to make a quick buck unethically. Every other problem in this bill flows from this wrong mandate it is setting for itself.

There should be a strong, rational reason why the EPA 1989 rules’ raison d’etre will not be the objective for BRAI — what new scientific evidence or other evidence it has emerged that this objective is being changed to introduce fast-track clearance systems in the name of ‘effective and efficient’ regulatory procedures? In fact, if there is any evidence at all, it is to the contrary.

Unsustainable techno-fix

A decade after Bt cotton entered the country, the amount spent on insecticides on cotton is more now (estimated at Rs 880.40 crore in 2010) than in 2002 (Rs 597 crore). Yields have stagnated despite the growth in proportion of Bt cotton and there is an admission that factors like good weather, irrigation and hybrid seeds have contributed to yield growths; the annual average rate of farmers’ suicides in states like Maharashtra has only gone up and not come down in the eight years after the advent of Bt cotton; chemical fertiliser use on cotton has shot up and cotton has indeed become a water-thirsty crop; pests are increasing and pest resistance showing up. Do we really need such unsustainable techno-fixes in our crisis-laden agriculture?

What this bill fails to pick up as a major policy directive both from the Bt brinjal debate and from the agriculture ministry’s Task Force on Application of Agri-Biotechnology is a need assessment for this technology. Instead it assumes that transgenics are a fait accompli. One of the fundamental recommendations of the task force was that “biotech applications which do not involve transgenics should be accorded high priority” and that “transgenics should be resorted to when other options to achieve the desired objectives are either not available or not feasible.”

Further, the new bill, through Section 28, expressly seeks to classify some information as confidential commercial information and leaves it to the discretion of officials of the authority to share or not share this information.

This once again is regressive, given that the Bt brinjal controversy saw express Supreme Court orders to the regulators to put out all the biosafety data in the public domain.

It is worthwhile to remember that the proposal for such an authority was formally mooted for the first time in 2003-04 by the Agri-biotech Task Force chaired by Dr M S Swaminathan, when it called for an autonomous, statutory and professional national biotechnology regulatory authority to consider the ethical, social, gender equity and economic concerns along with environmental and health safety aspects around the application of modern biotechnology in our food and farming, in an objective, transparent and trustworthy mode.

However, the BRAI Bill is flawed in fundamental ways. What this country needs is a national biosafety protection authority, with the best elements of environmental governance being its guiding principles – precautionary principle, transparent and democratic functioning, a liability regime making the crop developer solely responsible including for redressal and remediation, ensuring that there are no conflicting interests in decision-making, independent testing and monitoring, and so on.

These elements will follow if a fundamental aspect is recognised — that the need for regulation arises from the risks associated with modern biotechnology and that we do not need a BRAI but a national biosafety protection statute.

(The writer is the national convenor of Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture)

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