NEW DELHI: Just as when the government is readying its response in favour of genetically modified (GM) mustard for submission in the Supreme Court, a parliamentary panel on Friday flagged severe loopholes in existing methods of field trials of transgenic crops and asked environment ministry to examine the impacts of such crops “thoroughly” before taking its final call.
Food security is not about production alone; it is also about bio-safety, and access to food for the poorest
We are predominantly an agricultural economy, with the agricultural sector providing employment and subsistence to almost 70 per cent of the workforce. There have been some remarkable contributions from the agriculture sector to food grain production in the last six decades, when from a meagre 50 million tonnes in the 1950s, the country has been able to produce a record 241 million tonnes in 2010-2011. Despite these achievements, the condition of the farming community is pitiable considering that 70 per cent of our farmers are small and marginal, and there is a complete absence of pro-farmer/pro-agriculture policies which has led us to an environment of very severe agrarian distress.
Pros and cons
In this situation, food security has been one of the main agendas of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government and also one that the government has been struggling with. There is a strong opinion among policymakers that biotechnology holds a lot of promise in achieving food security and that transgenic crops, especially, are a sustainable way forward. But given the opposition and controversies surrounding Genetically Modified (GM) crops and the differences of opinion among stakeholders, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture decided to take on the mammoth task of an objective assessment of the pros and cons of introducing GM crops.
We expect the observations in our report to answer the big question on the role of GM crops in achieving food security. We hope the recommendations will be acted upon at the earliest. The committee felt this was all the more necessary in the light of the Prime Minister’s exhortation at the Indian Science Congress about the full utilisation of modern biotechnology for ensuring food security but without compromising on safety and regulatory aspects.
In India, the only commercialised GM crop is Bt cotton. Industry and the Central government have painted a picture of success about it — saying it has led to an increase in production and that the costs of cultivation have gone down. But the ground reality is starkly different. This was evident during the extensive interactions of the committee with farmers in different cotton growing regions around the country during study visits in March 2012.
Besides analysing the facts and figures provided by government agencies and listening to eminent cotton scientists, the committee’s consultation with farmers in Vidharbha helped us conclude that the Bt cotton saga is not as rosy as made out to be. In Vidharbha, the per-acre investment in cultivating traditional varieties, or even pre-Bt hybrids, could be less than Rs. 10,000. That was certainly the case until the first half of the previous decade. But for Bt cotton, even the un-irrigated farmer is spending upwards of Rs. 15,000-18,000 or even more per acre. And irrigated farmers complain of input costs exceeding Rs. 45,000 per acre. While the investment and acreage rose dramatically, the per acre yield and income did not increase in equal measure and actually fell after initial years. Indeed, the Union Agriculture Minister spoke of Vidharbha’s dismal yields on December 19, 2011 in the Rajya Sabha.
It was clear that at least for the rain-fed cotton farmers of our country, the introduction of Bt cotton offered no socio-economic benefits. On the contrary, it being a capital intensive practice, the investment of farmers increased manifold thus exposing them to greater risks due to massive indebtedness. It needs to be remembered that rain-fed farmers constitute 85 per cent of all cotton growing farmers.
Added to this, there is desperation among farmers as introduction of Bt cotton has slowly led to the non-availability of traditional varieties of cotton. The cultivation of GM crops also leads to monoculture and the committee has witnessed its clear disadvantages. The decade of experience has shown that Bt cotton has benefited the seed industry hands down and not benefited the poorest of farmers. It has actually aggravated the agrarian distress and farmer suicides. This should be a clear message to policymakers on the impact of GM crops on farming and livelihoods associated with it.
From the various deliberations to which the committee was privy, it is clear that the technology of genetic engineering is an evolving one and there is much, especially on its impact on human health and environment, that is yet to be understood properly. The scientific community itself seems uncertain about this. While there are many in this community who feel that the benefits outweigh the risks, others point to the irreversibility of this technology and uncontrollability of the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) once introduced in the ecosystem. Hence, they advocate a precautionary approach towards any open release of GMOs.
One of the concerns raised strongly by those opposing GM crops in India is that many important crops like rice, brinjal, and mustard, among others, originated here, and introducing genetically modified versions of these crops could be a major threat to the vast number of domestic and wild varieties of these crops. In fact, globally, there is a clear view that GM crops must not be introduced in centres of origin and diversity. India also has mega biodiversity hotspots like the Eastern Himalayas and the Western Ghats which are rich in biodiversity yet ecologically very sensitive. Hence it will only be prudent for us to be careful before we jump on to the bandwagon of any technology.
The committee’s findings on the GEAC-led regulatory system for GM crops show that it has a pro-Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and pro-industry tilt. It has also come under the scanner due to its inefficiency at the time of Bt Brinjal approval and for behaving like a promoter of GM crops rather than a regulatory body mandated to protect human health and environment from the risks of biotechnology. The DBT, whose mandate is to promote GM crops and fund various transgenics research, has a nominee as the co-chair of the GEAC, who gives the final approval for environmental and commercial release of GM crops.
The current regulatory system is shameful and calls for a complete makeover. While the government has been toying recently with the idea of a Biotechnology Regulatory Authority, the committee dismisses this and instead recommends an all-encompassing Biosafety Authority. While the committee has also evaluated international regulatory systems on GM crops, it recommends the Norwegian Gene Technology Act whose primary focus is bio-safety and sustainable development without adverse effects on health and environment, as a piece of legislation in the right direction for regulating GM crops in India.
The committee strongly believes that the problem today is in no measure comparable to the ship-to-mouth situation of the early 1960s. Policy and decision-makers must note that the total food grain production rose from 197 million tonnes in 2000-2001 to 241 million tonnes in 2010-11. A major argument by the Department of Agriculture and Cooperation before the committee in favour of GM crops was their potential to ensure the country’s food security. But the issue of food security is not about production alone; it also means access to food for the poorest. Moreover, there is no evidence as yet that GM crops can actually increase yields.
The committee, therefore, recommended the government come up with a fresh road map for ensuring food security in the coming years without jeopardising the vast biodiversity of the country and compromising with the safety of human and livestock health.
The committee unanimously feels that the government should take decisive action on the recommendations of this report and rethink its decision of introducing transgenics in agriculture as a sustainable way forward.
(Satyarat Chaturvedi is spokesperson, Indian National Congress, and member of Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture)
A Parliamentary committee report highlights the gaps in the regulatory mechanism for GM crops in India
By Neha Saigal
The voices of opposition to Genetically Modified (GM) crops worldwide reflected in India since the approvals for field trials of Bt cotton were given by the regulatory system in the late 1990s. They only grew louder and more prominent when the regulatory body in India, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) took the unthoughtful decision to commercialise Bt brinjal. These voices were not just of the usual suspects – the civil society – but those of farmers, scientists and politicians. Apart from the democratic decision taken by the then Minister of Environment and Forest Jairam Ramesh, to place a moratorium on Bt brinjal, this opposition also caught the attention of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture to take up an in-depth analysis on the controversies surrounding the cultivation of transgenic crops in India.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee and the GM Debate
The report which was produced by the committee headed by Basudev Acharia of CPM, is historic in a way as it was adopted unanimously by all the 31 members, cutting across party lines. This also includes 11 MPs from the ruling party, Indian National Congress. The report has tried to cover almost all aspects of the GM debate happening in the country. It addresses the fundamental questions around GM crops including their impact on human health and environment and whether they play a role in ensuring food security and livelihood security for those involved in farming, especially the small and marginal farmer who form 85% of our farmers. It goes in-depth into the experiences with Bt cotton, the first and only GM crop approved in our country. Given the fact that there have been widespread complaints against the current regulatory system for GM crops, it has also analysed condition of our regulatory system to assess its robustness.
In the light of its widespread deliberations and on ground assessments, the report concludes that there have been no significant socio-economic benefits to the farmers from the introduction of Bt cotton but on the other hand it has extensively benefited the industry. It strongly recommends to re-look at the current regulatory system (GEAC) for GM crops, due to the inefficiency to regulate technology as risky as GMOs and the continued evidence of their nexus with the biotech seed industry. The report also validates many of the cases of field trial violations and contamination that Greenpeace and other civil society members have brought to light over the last 10 years and recommends that open field trials under any garb should not be permitted. It is to be noted that open air field trials of Monsanto’s GM maize are currently underway in Punjab and Haryana.
GM Regulation in India- A story of shame
Since the inadequacies in the GEAC lead current regulatory system were evident during the Bt brinjal debate, one would expect that the new regulatory mechanism that is proposed by the Union Government would take into account these flaws. But the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill is much worse. The BRAI Bill that the Ministry of Science and Technology has been pushing since the last two years, among its many flaws, lacks an independent long-term bio safety testing, need assessment of products of modern biotechnology, transparency, public participation in decision making and deterrent liability mechanisms to prevent callous acts of the developers of such risky technologies. It basically acts as a single window clearance system that will lower the bar for GM crop approvals. It also fails to keep up the countries’ commitment to international treaties like the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), Cartagena Protocol on Bio safety and the Nagoya Protocol which we are signatory to. This is also pointed out by the Committee, that while we are signatories to these conventions and treaties dealing with Genetically Modified Organisms, we do not have the necessary expertise, infrastructure to ensure our compliance. The Committee feels very strongly that the current BRAI proposals to regulate biotechnology is too small a focus in the vast canvas of biodiversity, environment, human and livestock health and other such related issues. They have therefore, recommended an all encompassing Bio-Safety Protection Authority instead.
Our GM regulation a cause of Embarrassment at CBD
Neha Saigal is a campaigner for sustainable agriculture with Greenpeace India.
Parliamentary panel also seeks independent probe into how the govt had accorded approval to Bt brinjal
Jacob P. Koshy & Liz Mathew
New Delhi: A parliamentary committee has recommended halting all field trials of genetically modified (GM) seeds and sought an independent probe into how the government had accorded approval to Bt brinjal, a seed that was developed by Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co. Ltd (Mahyco).
Though it’s not mandatory for the government to accept the parliamentary standing committee’s recommendations, the suggestions of several such panels have significantly influenced government policy. Former environment minister Jairam Ramesh in 2010 imposed a moratorium on the sale of Bt brinjal seeds in India.
End of the road? Several private companies have been looking at introducing different kinds of genetically modified (GM) seeds, including rice, tomato and wheat apart from Bt cotton, which is the only GM plant that’s allowed to be cultivated.
The recommendations of the panel comes a day after the Maharashtra government cancelled Mahyco’s licence to sell Bt cotton seed in the state. This was after allegations that the company had misinformed state agricultural officials on the availability of Bt cotton seeds for farmers.Mahyco said in a statement that it will wait to hear from the government before addressing issues around the ban.
“In India, where 82% of the agriculture industry is of small farmers and where there is huge biodiversity, we should not go for GM foods. Even if we take the argument that we have to increase our food production according to the demands, we should look into indigenous ways to enhance it,” said Basudeb Acharya, chairman of the standing committee on agriculture and a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Pointing out that the introduction of Bt cotton was not discussed in Parliament before it was introduced in the country, Acharya said there was neither a study on its impact on cattlefeed made out of the cotton seeds, nor was any specific regulatory body to ensure food safety and standards.
The parliamentary panel, which met around 1,500 farmers in Goregaon in Maharashtra, also found they were left with no other alternatives to Bt cotton seeds in the market.
“The production cost, which was reduced due to less usage of pesticides, has been increasing,” Acharya said. “And we found largest number of suicides were reported from the areas where Bt Cotton is grown.”
The committee also pointed out that Ayurvedic medical practitioners have complained it had an adverse impact on the medicinal plants grown in the area.
The panel’s study on Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops—Prospects and Effects is among the most extensive studies conducted by a parliamentary standing committee. The panel received 467 memorandums, 14,862 documents and reviewed evidences given by 50 organizations during its 27 sittings on the subject.
While Bt cotton is the only GM plant that’s allowed to be cultivated, several private companies have been looking at introducing different kinds of GM seeds, including rice, tomato and wheat.
Following protests from civil society groups and farmers, several state government’s have banned trials of GM crops.
To bring greater transparency in the way crops are tested, the government has proposed an independent regulator, called the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India. Legislation to set up the authority has been pending for two years.
Earlier this year, the ministry of consumer affairs, food and public distribution ruled that all packaged food that was sourced from GM ingredients had to be labelled so.
The “report vindicates the concerns and positions taken by many state governments in India, such as Bihar, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, etc., which have disallowed GM crops, including field trials. It also vindicates the larger public demand not to allow GM crops into our food and farming systems” Sridhar Radhakrishnan, convener of the Coalition for a GM-Free India, a group that is opposed to the introduction of GM crops, said in a statement.
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‘Probe how Bt brinjal seed was allowed to be commercialised’
In a major setback to the proponents of genetically modified technology in farm crops, the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture on Thursday asked the government to stop all field trials and sought a bar on GM food crops (such as Bt. brinjal).
The committee report, tabled in the Lok Sabha, demanded a “thorough probe” into how permission was given to commercialise Bt. brinjal seed when all evaluation tests were not carried out.
It said there were indications of a “collusion of the worst kind from the beginning till the imposition of a moratorium on its commercialisation in February, 2010, by the then Minister for Environment and Forests.”
The report came a day after Maharashtra cancelled Mahyco’s licence to sell its Bt. cotton seeds.
It flayed the government for not discussing the issue in Parliament and observed that the Ministry failed in its responsibility by introducing such a policy, ignoring the interests of the 70 per cent small and marginal farmers.
The report criticised the composition and regulatory role of the Genetic Engineering Approval (Appraisal) Committee and the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM).
According to Committee chairman Basudeb Acharia, there is not a single note of dissent in the report of the 31-member panel, including nine from the Congress and six from the BJP. Observing that GM crops (such as Bt. cotton) benefited the (seed) industry without a “trickle-down” gain to farmers, it recommended that till all concerns were addressed, further research and development should be done only in contained conditions.
Citing instances of conflict of interest of various stakeholders, the panel said the government must put in place all regulatory, monitoring, oversight and surveillance systems.
Raising the “ethical dimensions” of transgenics in agricultural crops, as well as studies of a long-term environmental and chronic toxicology impact, the panel noted that there were no significant socio-economic benefits to farmers. On the contrary, farmers have incurred huge debts because of this capital-intensive practice.
“Today, 93 per cent of the area is under Bt. cotton because no alternative seeds are available,” Mr. Acharia said.