Undue haste

It is a matter of concern that even as the decision of the Supreme Court in a public interest litigation case on genetically modified (GM) crops is awaited, the Union environment ministry has jumped the gun and given a green signal for field trials of GM crops.

Environment minister Veerappa Moily has justified his decision allowing GM field trials by claiming that the apex court has not imposed an embargo on confined field trials. Perhaps the SC itself did not but a technical expert committee (TEC) it set up did call for a moratorium on all field trials till an effective and independent regulator was put in place. In the circumstances, the environment ministry was procedurally wrong in giving the go-ahead to GM field trials at this juncture. It is very likely that the decision came under pressure from the biotech industry, which was reportedly unhappy with Moily’s predecessor in the environment ministry, who rightly put the decision on hold pending the Supreme Court verdict. That the UPA government chose to give its nod at the fag-end of its tenure, will understandably raise questions over the motivation.  GM food has far-reaching and long-term ramifications for food security and agriculture and will impact enormously on the health and well-being of hundreds of millions in this country.  It is deeply regrettable that Moily chose to act in undue haste on a question of such importance.

Proponents of GM food have long argued that GM crops are necessary to boost food production to address India’s hunger crisis. This argument may have held water in the past, when India did indeed suffer food shortages and was forced to import grains. It does not hold true today where we are exporting grain and our grain silos are often overflowing. India’s food crisis is not one of production but of distribution, a problem that GM food cannot tackle. The TEC provided several reasons why GM crops were unsuitable to India. The government has brushed aside its recommendations and has ignored too the shortcomings the TEC drew attention to in the existing regulatory framework.

It is well known that the GM industry has been relentless in its efforts to get India to open its doors. In December, the Maharashtra government gave several biotech companies permission to conduct field trials of GM crops at state agriculture universities’ farms, overriding the calls of its agriculture minister to debate the issue.  Moily’s decision will throw open the flood gates further.

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