Experts against founding of national biotech authority as glitches increase

Written by ASHOK B SHARMA | New Delhi, Jun 29 | Updated: Jul 1 2008, 05:17am hrs
Teething problems which may pose difficulties for the birth of the proposed National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (NBRA) have begun to surface. Experts have begun questioning the need for setting up of such an authority when existing regulator, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), is already acting as a single-window clearance for genetically modified (GM) food products.

We have been very swift in granting our process of approval. Since 2002, we have approved over 150 GM cotton hybrids, one transgenic cotton variety and five events. Our functioning has become more transparent following the orders of the Supreme Court. The GEAC meeting takes place every second Wednesday of the month and that of Review Committee on Genetic Manipilation (RCGM), every fourth Tuesday, said a GEAC official.

The founder-director of the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Pushpa Mittra Bhargava, said that biotechnology covered about 30 areas, out of which transgenic technology was one. It should be clarified whether NBRA would regulate all areas of biotechnology or only transgenic crops, animals, GM food and recombinant pharma. If NBRA is to regulate only transgenic technology, then its name needs to be changed, he said.

MS Swaminathan, who chaired one of the panels which had recommended the setting up of the NBRA, agreed on the justification for the change of the name of the authority and the limiting of its area of focus to transgenic technology.

Bhargava, who is a permanent invitee to GEAC meetings by an order of the Supreme Court, said: The government, before deciding to set up the NBRA, should clarify as why it is replacing the GEAC. It should make public knowledge any malfunctioning of the GEAC. If the government feels there is nothing wrong with the GEAC, then it should not think of setting up of the NBRA.

Bhargava also pointed out that the draft National Biotechnology Regulatory Bill of 2008 did not contain a substantive portion for promising effective regulation. He said that the draft also did not accompany any rules or guidelines for implementation. Other experts opine that the government should make the GEAC more accountable, than contemplate on setting up the NBRA. The GEAC functions under the Union ministry of environment and forests, while it has been proposed that the autonomous NBRA would be anchored by the promoter agency, the department of biotechnology (DBT).

In this case, a few experts feel that the NBRA may not be able to address health and environment concerns. The draft has proposed that NBRA should have an inter-ministerial advisory board, but its recommendations would not be binding. The NBRA is likely to infringe upon the state governments rights, under the Constitution, to regulate agriculture.

The proposed Bill is likely to override about seven existing laws and this has set Delhi-based Human Rights Law Network gearing up to oppose the founding of the NBRA.