Needed: A biotech regulator

Written by BV Mahalakshmi | Updated: Jun 24 2011, 09:23am hrs
Research in the domestic agri-biotech industry seems to be strangled by multiple ministries and state governments, with both public and private sector companies grappling to tackle contrasting regulations. The biotech industry has been demanding the creation of a single regulator in contrast to curernt three the ministry of agriculture, the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) and the ministry of science and technology.

The industry is of the view that if the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill is passed, there will be a predictable regulatory mechanism. A separate and single-window regulatory body for genetically-engineered products under the department of science and technology is needed to prevent a war between poor farmers and private seed companies. Ranged against each other are industry players seeking speedy approval of trials of genetically engineered crops, and non-governmental organisations such as Southern Action on Genetic Engineering (SAGE), who are demanding a nationwide debate on the effects of GM crops. The proposed BRAI Bill, which was supposed to bring about wide-ranging changes in regulating research, transport, import, manufacture and use of GM products in the country, is yet to take shape. But activists say that BRAI will have an over-riding effect (over other state-level Acts), and the net effect will be that farmers will go back to the same shop for less productive seeds. The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) meeting, which was scheduled for June 8, is now postponed to July 6, without any clear reasons.

The notification on the MoEFs website simply reads: The GEAC applicants may please note that the 110th GEAC meeting scheduled for 8.6.2011 has now been rescheduled for 6.7.2011. As applicants have to seek permission of states also before going ahead with trials, the kharif sowing season will be over by then. Industry experts say that given the growing challenges of feeding a population of 1 billion-plus and the urgent need to enhance crop productivity, the GEACs decision will negatively impact pending research trial approvals for this kharif planting. This would also delay the launch of new technologies, thereby hurt the long-term interest of farmers. Some of the private and public sector crops in the pipeline for approval include: ICAR (castor), CRIDA (sorghum), CPRI (potato), UAS Bangalore (groundnut), Bayer (rice and cotton), DuPont Pioneer (maize), Mahyco (cotton), JK (rice and cotton), Syngenta (maize) and Monsanto (maize).

Ram Kaundinya, chairman, Agriculture Group, Association of Biotech-Led Enterprises, said the final draft of the BRAI Bill (which has not been seen by the industry as yet) is ready and could be introduced as early as the monsoon session of Parliament. He said, We hope that the body will be able to address the long-term policy issues of the biotech sector, which is becoming more and more science intensive and important with each passing day.

While we have been talking about this since February 2007, one wonders if it would even see light of the day this year. We all know it would take roughly three years for the rules to come into effect after the Bill has been passed, said C Kameswara Rao, founder and chairman, Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education.

However, critics view the situation differently. PV Satheesh, director, Deccan Development Society, said the central government should call for a nationwide debate both in state capitals and smaller towns and designate 201112 as the Year of GM Debate in India. He said the debate must go beyond the hallowed scientific experts and even some self-styled leaders of the genetic engineering movement in civil society and must encompass farmers, health practitioners, legal fraternity, consumer groups and thoroughly democratise the debate.

On the need for a regulator, Satheesh said the body has to be a transparent one where both biotech and non-biotech scientists give unbiased reports and not fall a prey to MNCs. He said the introduction of the BRAI Bill is the most significant legislation in the history of Indias agriculture. The proposed Bill on BRAI must be revisited and there should be a new committee that has farmers, consumers and environmentalists in equal measure to the panel to prepare a new draft for presentation to Parliament. Until this is done, the presentation of BRAI before the Parliament should be kept on hold, Satheesh explained.

According to a working paper by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, India has to double food production by 2020. The demand for meat, fish and eggs is expected to go up by 2.8 times; the demand for cereals is expected to double; the demand for fruit and vegetables is expected to go up by 1.8 times and the demand for milk is expected to go up by 2.6 times compared with 2007. This will create further pressure on land and water in India over next 15 years.