GEAC should address health and environmental concerns

(Dr. krishan Bir Chaudhary)

14 7 2007 - The government must clarify why it is setting up the National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (NBRA), replacing the existing regulator Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) which is already acting as a single window clearance for biotech products. If the government feels that the GEAC is incompetent and inefficient, it should bring it to the public knowledge.

The Supreme Court, in the course of hearing a writ petition seeking a moratorium on GM crops, had ordered some improvements for introducing transparency in the functioning of GEAC. The government had always defended the functioning of GEAC in the Supreme Court. Has it got any moral right now to say that GEAC is not functioning well and needs to be replaced by NBRA?

The fact is that the GEAC, without caring for any biosafety norms and transparency, has been very fast in the approval of GM crops with a view to benefit the multinational seed companies. Since 2002, GEAC approved over 175 Bt cotton hybrids, five events and one Bt cotton variety. It has conducted field trials of Bt brinjal, Bt okra, GM mustard, Bt cabbage, GM tomato, GM groundnut and GM potato.

The functioning of GEAC has been questioned by many independent scientists, like the founder director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Pushpa Mittra Bhargava. He called for a total review of India’s experience with Bt cotton, including how Bt technology was brought into the country.

He has also sought a two to three years moratorium on GM crops, unless and until proper independent studies are done on biosafety like pollen flow, seed germination, soil microbial activity, toxicity, allergenicity, DNA finger printing, proteomics analysis, and reproductive interferences.

At the global level, independent scientists like Arpad Pusztai have questioned the safety of GM food. Pusztai has pointed out by saying “Well-designed studies, though few in number, show potentially worrisome biological effects of GM food, which the regulators have largely ignored.” In India, there were reports of sheep mortality on account of grazing over Bt cotton fields in Andhra Pradesh, which the GEAC did not consider with seriousness.

There are reported cases of illegal imports of hazardous GM food, which are not approved in the country and the government has remained a mute spectator. Illegal imports of GM food are in violation of the Rules, 1989 of the Environment Protection Act, 1986.

The annual amendments to the Foreign Trade Policy made in April 2006 said unlabelled GM food import would attract penal action under Foreign Trade (Development and Regulation) Act, 1992. But this is not implemented in absence of guidelines.

The panel of experts and stakeholders headed by the additional director-general of National Institute of Communicable Diseases, Shiv Lal had recommended mandatory labeling of GM food, irrespective of the threshold level. But the recommendations were not implemented either by the health ministry or GEAC. Rather, the GEAC allowed free imports of oil extracted from GM soybeans without any labeling, tests and restrictions.

The plan to set up NBRA is largely based on the recommendations of the two panels headed by MS Swaminathan and RA Mashelkar. The suggestions made and apprehensions raised by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) in its paper – Regulatory Regime for Genetically Modified Foods : The Way Ahead – have not been considered.

Monsanto is charging a high technology fee, which has raised the prices of Bt cotton seeds and the issue is subjudice before the MRTP Act. There are fears that pollen flow from GM crops to non-GM crops may cause problems for farmers, who may be asked to pay high technology fee for their own seeds as had been the case with the Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser.

Indian farmers, in many areas have suffered heavy losses on account of failure of Bt cotton. States like Kerala and Uttarakhand have banned GM crops and the Centre, through the NBRA, is planning to override states governments’ power to regulate agriculture.

The government should make GEAC more accountable to address health and environmental concerns, rather than set up NBRA.

The writer is president, Bharatiya Krishak Samaj



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