Thorough debate on GM crops is need of hour

As the Central government prepares to battle a contempt notice in the Supreme Court on the purported trials of genetically modified (GM) mustard, a year-old British Parliament document may come handy for the department of biotechnology (DBT) to firm up its arguments, being the first narrative from lawmakers on why the conservative view on genetically modified crops needs re-examination.

Titled ‘Advanced Genetic Techniques for Crop Improvement: Regulation, risks and precaution’, the report from the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee assumed significance in the backdrop of DBT’s admission of taking a relook at the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill to iron out its flaws, before it is brought to parliament once again seeking passage. The British report reflects several arguments that have Indian scientists voiced for years, but failed to convince a large section of the society.

For instance, many opinions of Indian anti-GM activists are modelled on the European Union legislation. The point, which is largely ignored, is current EU legislative framework for novel plants is founded on the premise that genetically modified plants pose inherently greater risk than their conventional counterparts. The regulations were developed in 1990s when little was known about the GM technology. That changed in the last two decades.

The weight of peer-reviewed scientific evidence, collected over many years, has shown this argument unjustified. Where genetically modified crops have been shown to pose a risk, this has invariably been a result of the trait displayed — for example, herbicide tolerance — rather than the technology itself.

Worldwide, over 175 million hectares are dedicated to GM crop, accounting for 12 per cent of arable land. No inherent risks have so far been identified to human or animal health from this consumption or to the environment from their cultivation.

“The EU’s process-based regulatory system for novel crops is increasingly proving itself to be incapable of dealing with advances in technology. This raises the prospect that potentially important agricultural innovations will be hindered, or even halted, by inappropriate regulation, while potentially harmful crops may escape appropriate control if they are produced using techniques not captured by GMO regulations,” argues the British Parliament report.

Five years ago, an Indian parliament report – by the Standing Committee on Agriculture – too scrutinised the GM crop issues. Based on scientific evidences presented before it, the panel noted biotechnology’s “salutory” contributions to agriculture. But citing regulatory glitches and precautionary principle, the Standing Committee on Agriculture asked the government to discontinue all field trials and carrying out the R&D activities in strict confinement.

The UK report, however, asserts that precautionary norms act as a barrier to progress in this field because scientific evidence relating to the use of GM crops are neither insufficient, inconclusive nor uncertain.

The Indian parliamentary panel’s report was followed by another critical report from an expert committee appointed by the Supreme Court. It supported continuing with the stay on field trials till regulatory issues are addressed, though one member of the panel disagreed.

Surreptitious testing
The Central government issued a moratorium on GM crop field trials, which was lifted later. But field trials remain mostly suspended in the absence of no objection certificate from state governments. The contempt petition argues that field trials of  GM mustard were conducted surreptitiously in two states, in violation of past orders from the Supreme Court.

A month after the contempt petition was filed, DBT released the National Biotechnology Development strategy in January 2016, demonstrating the government’s intention to follow the biotechnology driven path for crop improvement. The department wants to set up translational centre for agri-biotechnology, partnering with the state agriculture universities. The genetic modifications would target predominantly at overcoming the biotic and abiotic stresses like drought or flood situation.

But, for the strategy to succeed, the apex court and parliament have to be convinced that benefits of genetically modified crops far outweigh the risks, if any; and past action from Indian scientists and government officials are far from convincing.

There is no logical answer to a simple question – why, more than 15 years after commercial cultivation of Bt cotton was approved, not a single Bt cotton seed from any public sector seed company has come to the market and why the private sector was given a free hand.

However, it is a question on the percolation of the technology, and not the GM technology per se. A proposal to involve Indian Council of Agriculture Research on GM crop trials through its all-India coordinated research programme remains on paper. 

Good risk management requires the potential benefits of an action to be thoroughly considered alongside the risks. It also requires a consideration of the risk of failing to act.

Current GMO legislation fails to adequately recognise this point, argues the UK Parliament report. This has led to a one-sided decision-making process and has sent a misleading message to the public about the potential value of these products, to the economy, society and the environment.

It’s clear that instead of a single technology, a diversity of approaches – technological, social, economic and political – are required to address the ills in the agriculture sector.

“However, advanced genetic approaches do have a role to play. We are convinced by the evidence provided to us that this suite of technologies is a potentially important tool, particularly in the developing world, which should not be rejected unless there are solid scientific evidence those technologies may cause harm,” says the UK report.

Fears of pursuing advanced genetic approaches to crop improvement, it says, inevitably locks out alternative technologies and solutions are ill-founded. But regulatory reforms have to be an essential. Whether the DBT and other ministries can undertake the necessary reforms and convince parliament and the Supreme Court, is a million dollar question.

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