House panel for probe into Bt brinjal issue

Written by Sandip Das | New Delhi | Updated: Aug 10 2012, 09:15am hrs
In a move which could stall the commercial introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops in India, a parliamentary panel on Thursday recommended a thorough probe by independent scientists and environmentalists into the entire process of granting approval to Bt brinjal.

After going through more than 1,800 submissions, the parliamentary committee on agriculture (2011-12) in its report titled Cultivation of genetically modified food crops prospects and effects severely criticised Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), which had given approval for the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal on the basis of its own assessment in 2009. After protests from civil society groups and scientists, Jairam Ramesh, then environment minister, imposed an indefinite moratorium on the commercial release of Bt brinjal.

The GEAC is now sitting on its own judgment and also on the various reports on the merits and demerits of GM crop. It is a clear case of conflict of interest, the parliament panel chaired by CPM MP Basudeb Acharya has noted.

Bt brinjal is a genetically-modified vegetable which is infused with Cry1Ac gene from bacterium Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt) to make the plant resistant to certain pests.

The panel, consisting 31 Lok Sabha members, has recommended the evaluation of the Bt brinjal reports by some other agency such as CSIR since they not only have sufficient expertise in this regard but also have minimum conflict of interest in the matter amongst the various public sector scientific institutions.

Criticising the current system of regulations for the GM crops, the panel has observed all is not well with the regulatory mechanism put in place by the government for oversight of cutting edge technology as sensitive as GMOs. The GEAC being an entity created under rules rather than an Act of Parliament deprives it of the status, powers and more importantly autonomy and independence that a statutory regulator ought to have, it added.

The government has inordinately dithered in bringing in appropriate bio-safety friendly legislation in the matter before the Parliament, Acharya said after presenting the panel's report in Parliament.

This report vindicates the concerns and positions taken by many state governments such as Bihar, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh to disallow GM crops, including field trials. It also vindicates the larger public demand not to allow GM crops into our food and farming systems Coalition for a GM free India convener Sridhar Radhakrishnan said.

The parliamentary panel also has sought explanation from the department of consumer affairs and Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) after tonne of cotton seed oil extracted from Bt cotton had gone into food chain with various agencies oblivious of the fact.

Many environmental groups have been opposing BT brinjal saying that there are enough indigenously developed brinjal varieties in the country and the government should not use Bt crop in a hurry without ensuring the health impact on humans. Brinjal is grown in around 5.5 lakh hectare in the country and is an important cash crop for more than 1.4 million small and marginal farmers. West Bengal, contributes around 30% to the countrys annual brinjal production of over 9 million tonne. Orissa produces 20% and Bihar 12% of the total output.

In 2002, Bt cotton was the first GM crop introduced for commercial cultivation. Since its introduction, the countrys cotton production has increased from 12-13 million bale (170 kg in a bale) in the 1990s to around 35 million bale at present. This has made India the second biggest cotton producer in the world surpassing the United States.