Why India’s Approach to Regulating GM Crops Is a Cause for Concern

By Udit Thakur | 20 February 2015

On 29 January 2015, the Maharashtra government decided to take forward its decision to grant no objection certificates (NOCs) for field trials of five strains of genetically modified (GM) crops. Until now, field trials have only been allowed in Punjab, Delhi and Andhra Pradesh. This decision was the latest in a recent series of bureaucratic flash points, each of which have failed to delineate a uniform approach to India’s ongoing debate over GM crop technology.

In principle, these NOCs merely function as an indicator of the state government’s consent for the field trials of five particular GM crop strains: brinjal, maize, rice, chickpea and cotton. That consent must then be coupled with a nod from the Ministry of Environment’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), at which point GM producers may begin the process of conducting field trials.

There has been some disagreement, however, as to just what sort of field trials Maharashtra has allowed. While statements by the GEAC have referred to “confined trials,” which are typically carried out in plots of one hectare or less under close supervision, others have referred to them as “open field trials.” Back in 2013, Aruna Rodrigues—lead petitioner in an ongoing Supreme Court case against GM crop introduction in India—charged that there was “no difference” between confined and open-field trials, calling the former a “misnomer.” A member of the Supreme Court Technical Expert Committee (TEC) that was formed in 2012 in response to Ms Rodrigues’ case told me that there is a “gray area in distinguishing confined field trials from open field trials.” He explained that while the differentiation is largely meant to be one of scale—where open field trials take place on much larger plots of land—the source of confusion often comes from the lack of formal ground rules that define just how small a confined field trial is. He also indicated that the difference in scale between the two field trials becomes “less consistent” in practice and that the criteria differentiating a confined trial from an open one are often “arbitrary.”

Of late, the central government has been an eager advocate of GM technology. On 4 December 2014, union environment and forests minister, Prakash Javadekar, responding to queries at the Rajya Sabha, stated that there was no scientific evidence indicating that GM crops were harmful, before going on to tout the potential benefits of the technology such as insect and disease resistance. He addressed public concerns over the efficacy of India’s GM regulatory bodies by claiming that all GM crops undergo an extensive evaluation and regulatory approval process.

But Javadekar’s present air of certainty stands in stark contrast to the cautionary tone he employed last July, when he announced the government’s decision to ignore GEAC recommendations by postponing field trials for thirteen GM crop strains. That decision had come a week after Javadekar met with leaders of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh. Both these organisations are Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliates that echo their parent group’s views on agriculture. The RSS has long opposed GM crops, fearing the likelihood of India’s food sovereignty being co-opted by powerful multi-national corporations such as Monsanto.

Javadekar’s decision at that time was decried by GM proponents, such as the Association of Biotech-Led Enterprises-Agriculture Group (ABLE-AG), as being “anti-science.”

But while the RSS and its affiliates have been adamant in their stance and remain opposed to GM crops under any circumstance, the Environment Ministry’s approach to the issue largely reflects the BJP’s 2014 Election Manifesto, which states:

 

Genetically Modified (GM) foods will not be allowed without full scientific evaluation on its long-term effects on soil, production and biological impact on consumers.

Javadekar’s change of heart in those five months may have been the result of “full rigorous scientific evaluation” of the GM technology in the Indian context. But regardless of whether or not that review actually occurred, the Environment Ministry must now respond to the scathing critique of India’s GM regulatory framework made by the Supreme Court’s Technical Expert Committee (TEC) in its final report in 2013.

The TEC originally included four prominent scientists from the fields of microbiology, ecology and genetics: Imran Siddiqi, PS Ramakrishnan, PS Chauhan, and PC Kesavan. After the committee released its interim report in 2012, the Ministry of Agriculture lobbied to include an additional member, RS Paroda, a former director-general of the Indian Council of Agriculture Research. Another member of the TEC told me that he believed Paroda had been “planted by the government” once the TEC’s interim report reflected an overly negative assessment of India’s GM regulatory framework. Paroda, however, opted out of signing the committee’s final report—which extended the ten-year moratorium recommended in the interim report for reworking the structure of the regulatory framework for GM crops in India, to an indefinite period—and did not author a dissenting note.

Close to two years after its final report was released, however, the recommendations of the TEC are yet to be addressed. “The findings of the TEC are still sub judice—under judgment,” Suman Sahai, a scientist and activist, told me. “The recommendations had not been followed up on in any meaningful sense, so how can people make statements about the viability of products that do not measure up to the standards set by such an expert committee?” Aside from the temporary moratorium on GM crop trials that was imposed during the previous UPA government, as well as at the beginning of this current administration, Sahai and members of the TEC told me that none of the committee’s recommendations or observations had been acted upon by current regulatory bodies.

Sahai is the founder of Gene Campaign, a research and advocacy organisation that focuses on issues of food security and farmer’s rights. She and her organisation have advocated for more robust regulatory procedures for GM crops in India, and have investigated cases in which GM field trials have not been properly administered. “There is a large degree of noncompliance, and regulators and developers are not imposing the sort of stringent standards they are meant to,” she said.

Many of the TEC’s findings substantiate Sahai’s warnings. In one particular case in its interim report, the TEC scrutinised a dossier submitted by a Shriram Institute for Industrial Research developer that showed toxicity studies for a strain of Bt Cotton: NHH44. The “Acute Oral Toxicity Study” was conducted by orally administering the cotton seed to rats. In its assessments, the government regulator claims to have observed “no noteworthy findings.” But as the TEC points out in its report, the authors of the dossier paid no attention to defining just what sort of clinical signs they had observed in the rats they examined. As the TEC argued, “What is considered noteworthy has not been defined.” In other words, overseers were expected to take the dossier author’s unspecified charge—that no “noteworthy findings” were observed—on faith.

The TECs criticism of this “casual approach” to research may seem like nitpicking to the lay observer, but what they found next troubled them further. The submitted dossier indicated that male and female rats showed “equality in terms of body weights and growth rates from the age of 6-8 weeks onwards to 20-22 weeks of age.” The TEC deemed this data “very difficult to accept,” given that equal body weight and growth rates among male and female rats is “not a common observation in any strain of rat.” The committee found it a “major concern” that this appeared to have gone completely unnoticed by the regulator. They could only conclude that the regulator had granted approval even though the data was either made up or severely flawed.

However, not everyone agrees that India’s GM regulatory framework is in need of overhaul. Deepak Pental, Professor of Genetics at Delhi University, told me that he believes India’s standards “are as stringent as those of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), and virtually equal to anywhere else in the world.” Pental, who works extensively on developing strains of GM mustard, had to wait two years for permission to conduct field trials after filing his application with the GEAC. “The environmentalists often want to slam everything, but we can’t go on hiding from this technology,” he told me. But Pental did go on to concede that despite his vote of confidence in India’s stringent GM standards, there may be issues with “whether those standards are being followed.”

PS Chauhan, a geneticist and one of the members of the Supreme Court TEC, prefers a cautionary approach to questions of GM safety. “It must be understood that there are rarely safe and unsafe technologies,” he told me. “All technologies have a degree of risk. However, there are products that are safe, and unsafe. That is what is in question.”

As the TEC’s report indicates, the ability to assess the potential benefits and harms posed by different GM products requires a robust regulatory framework. In the absence of one, the rush to conduct field trials could very well add to the likelihood of an emergent threat to both human health and India’s ecology. In that context, getting the balance right between a desire for scientific inquiry and the need for a stringent scientific evaluation could be crucial. As Chauhan puts it, “It’s not just a social matter of security; it’s a matter of national security.”

Udit Thakur is a freelance writer and researcher. He writes on issues of comparative religion, politics, and human security, and is based in Mumbai.

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