House panel report on GM crop draws flak

Written by Sandip Das | Banikinkar Pattanayak | New Delhi | Updated: Aug 13 2012, 10:05am hrs
Scientists, farmer bodies and industry associations alike have slammed the parliamentary panel on agriculture for suggesting a probe into the go-ahead for commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal, India's first genetically-modified food crop. They have also criticised its recommendation for a ban on the field trials of such crops,terming the report as unscientific and partisan.

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) had approved commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal in 2009, but the then environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, had put an indefinite moratorium on the decision following protests.

The panel also observed that all is not well with the regulatory mechanism put in place by the government for the oversight of cutting-edge technology as sensitive as GMOs. The report has shown a total lack of confidence in the Indian system of regulating GM crops, which is a dangerous precedence, Swapan Dutta, deputy director general (crop sciences) of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), told FE.

While advocates of GM crops often point at improved production through resistance to certain pests, civil society groups have long been critical of their adverse impact on environment and human health.

However, industry executives asked why the House panel chose not to include several crucial points made by scientists in favour of such a technology and, instead, incorporated all the perceived negatives spread by civil society groups.

After 10 years of the introduction of Bt cotton, which has hugely benefitted farmers, such negative observation about the GM crops by the parliamentary panel would create uncertainty about a decade of research by the public as well as the private sector institutions. State-run institutions have invested huge financial resources in GM crop research, which would now go waste, said N Seetharama, executive director of the Association of Biotech Led Enterprises an agriculture group comprising 12 major companies.

With population rising and climate change posing huge risk to productivity amid shrinking land and water resources, discouraging the use of new technology would be detrimental to the food security of the nation, the executives said.

Maharashtra agriculture minister Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil said: We are not against Bt cotton, but we want improvement in the current Bt seed varieties, which will suit different agro-climatic zones and benefit farmers immensely without compromising on safety standards. Significantly, the rain-fed Vidarbha region of the state is cited by activists as a classic example of the failure of the GM crop on grounds that many cotton farmers have committed suicide there.

Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar has also supported GM crops in the past, saying conventional technologies were inadequate to meet challenges of feeding a burgeoning population with limited resources. Terming the report thoughtless, P Chengal Reddy, secretary general of the Consortium of Indian Farmers Association, said: When several developed countries, such as the US and Canada, have approved the cultivation of genetically-modified crops, there is no logic behind not giving approval to such crops in India.

An executive with a global body promoting the GM crops said, on condition of anonymity: What this report says is that 7 million farmers who are using Bt cotton seeds in India and profiting out of it and dozens of eminent scientists with impeccable integrity are just ignorant, which is, to say the least, is absurd,

However, Greenpeace, known for its anti-GM stance, has said it supports the panels findings and conclusions, and urged action from the government immediately, adding that the panel members had travelled across the country and consulted various stakeholders before submitting the report.

In 2002, Bt cotton was the first GM crop to be introduced for commercial cultivation. From a big importer of cotton then, the country has now become the worlds second-biggest producer as well as exporter, and many attribute the success to the adoption of the GM crop.

Bt brinjal was the first and maize was the second food crop for which the GEAC had allowed field trials. As many as eight GM crops, including rice and vegetables, are also at different stages of trials.