House panel wants ban on Bt brinjal field trials

It wants a thorough probe into the controversy

A parliamentary committee has recommended a ban on field trial of all genetically modified crops until “all regulatory and surveillance mechanisms” are in place. It also suggested a “thorough investigation” into the controversy on Bt brinjal.

In a report submitted to both Houses on Thursday, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture blamed “collusion of the worst kind” behind promotion of the genetically-modified vegetable.

It suggested that a team of independent scientists and environmentalists be appointed to study the propagation of Bt brinjal in the country, right from its introduction to the imposition of moratorium on its commercialisation by erstwhile environment minister Jairam Ramesh on February 9, 2010.

The allegation of “collusion” comes from the deposition of veteran biologist P M Bhargava, the Supreme Court-appointed nominee in the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), India’s highest authority on GM crops.

In his testimony before the committee, Bhargava, who is the founder director of the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, said GEAC co-chairman Arjula Reddy got calls from the industry, colleagues in GEAC and a minister, to approve the genetically engineered eggplant.

However, chairman of the committee and CPM MP Basudev Acharia said neither did he know the name of the minister in question, nor did he ask Bhargava to identify him. Since Reddy did not depose, the committee based its assertions on Bhargava’s statement.

A major flaw in the regulatory mechanism for Bt brinjal was that the 30 per cent increase in toxic alkaloid content in the genetically-modified variety was not taken into consideration.

“Field trial of GM crops under any garb should be discontinued forthwith. while research and development on transgenic components in crops should only be done in strict containment till the government puts in place regulatory, monitoring, oversight and surveillance mechanisms,” the report said.

Criticising the government for failing to implement a “bio-safety friendly regulation,” the committee recommended that “an all encompassing bio-safety authority to focus on bio-safety, bio-diversity, human and livestock health and environmental protection be set up.”

Neither did the committee favour the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India bill put forth by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT). “DBT is the promoter of biotechnology. How can it be the regulator as well,” wondered Acharia.

The 492-page report further suggested that infrastructure of GEAC and the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation, which oversees GM crop research, be upgraded. In addition, the National Biodiversity Authority and Food Safety and Standards Authority of India be suitably equipped for keeping an eye on the misuse of GM technology, it said.

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