Prakash Javadekar tweeted recently, claiming that the recent GEAC go-ahead to 15 open air field trials of GMOs is only a recommendation and not a Government of India decision. This is a line uncannily similar to Moily’s when confronted by farmer unions. Who is the Minister kidding? GEAC recommends first, mostly following the RCGM’s recommendations; then applicants are supposed to get NOCs from state governments after which the permission letters are issued. In fact, GEAC’s recommendations are the first step in permitting trials. Well, for the ones who are following the GM debate closely, it is also clear that the GEAC meeting itself is a GOI decision, whatever the Minister might claim!
Why are the recent approvals a matter of concern? For several reasons. (Read this along with my presentation on the (hi)story of GMO field trials in India here)
Here is yet another government which is choosing to ignore the fact that the Supreme Court is right now hearing a PIL and is on the verge of giving its verdict, based on recommendations provided by a Technical Expert Committee (TEC) that the Court set up. This TEC majority report has asked for open-air trials to be stopped. In fact, this report points to no place at all for entertaining applications related to Bt food crops, herbicide tolerant GM crops and crops for which we are the Cente of Origin/Diversity.
Earlier, a Ministry of Agriculture’s Committee concluded that contamination occurred most probably in a University (outcrossing or admixture, deliberate or accidental are the terms that the Committee uses). If this could happen with one GMO, no one has come forward to explain to the nation why it will not happen with other GMOs.
Before this was the unanimous Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture’s report on GM food crops, with many NDA members in it, which also called for stopping of field trials ‘under any garb’. Now, going ahead with FTs is a defiant statement against judicial processes, scientific assessment processes and Parliamentary processes.
More important is the fact that BJP had made a promise to the citizens of India in its election manifesto – incidentally, the promise around long term comprehensive scientific evaluation of GMO safety and other risks is exactly the crux of the SC case! This move of FT approvals is a clear and intentional breaking of a promise. In fact, insiders have stories to tell about how this was a contentious issue during manifesto preparation of the party, which had two sides debating about the party’s stand on GMOs late into the night – some actually attribute the delay in the party’s release of its manifesto on this GMO controversy. If finally, the Manifesto had a particular stance projected, it means that the faction in the party which was pro-GM was convinced and to do a turnaround now is unethical and even irrational since no new evidence has emerged in favor of GMOs. In fact, more reports related to contamination or health risks are emerging frequently, if one chooses to be scientific about this debate. We need a system in this country whereby Parties are held accountable to their Manifesto promises.
Further, we have had the Agriculture Minister express his views on the very first day of assuming charge. He said that GMOs should be discussed only if they are absolutely critical. Here is an Environment Minister on the other hand, whose mandate is to protect bio-safety, who seems to be throwing caution and good advice to the winds. It is indeed ironical that we are seeing the Jayanti Natarajan-Sharad Pawar face-off being reversed in this government, with the PMO most probably supportive of the pro-GM stance.
It is also interesting to see the government go against the wishes of the Sangh Parivar groups in this case. After the GEAC’s meeting on July 18th, there were quick reactions from some of the Sangh outfits. The government is apparently putting out a message to Nagpur too that it will have its own way.
Let me also bring in the state governments into this – after all, this is a government that claims that it is serious about upholding the federal polity of the country. It showed a bit of its approach in the recent Budget Statements, for instance, where many scheme outlays were devolved. However, when it comes to GM, it is allowing the industry to have its way. Why should the GEAC even entertain applications for GMO trials in states that have shown their disinclination in various ways already?
Now, coming to some technical aspects related to GM field trials: very often, we hear that stopping field trials is stopping progress of scientific research; that we should not come in the way of research.
However, this argument misses a couple of critical points: one, GM is a living technology and has the ability to be irreversible and uncontrollable (procreation and spread through pollen etc.). Field trials involve a deliberate open-air release of GMOs which are untested and are new organisms in Nature. In India, no biosafety clearance happens before such field trials, and biosafety testing is done parallelly with open air releases. This poses risks due to the inherent nature of the technology – of spreading in uncontrollable ways.
There are numerous examples of contamination resulting from field trials (even the MoA’s own Sopory Committee report points to this). In fact, such contamination has also led to export consignment rejections elsewhere, and this therefore has trade security implications also. United Nations’ FAO has recently put out a new report on these incidents and this can be accessed here (http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/216311/icode/).
To compound this challenge that the technology itself presents is the pathetic and unaccountable regulation of GM field trials in the country. We have numerous instances documented of egregious and brazen violations of biosafety norms laid down substantiated by scientific papers and RTI replies (http://indiagminfo.org/?page_id=175. Nothing has changed as far as oversight, monitoring, scientific evaluation etc., of GMOs is concerned in this country. It appears also that nothing has changed, despite a government change, as far as (unscientific) industry and technocratic influence on the government is concerned.
Let us for a while also focus on the “conditions” for trials.
The conditions imposed for the trials are not fool-proof, on top of the fact that the controversial technology itself is an irreversible living technology prone to contamination in the open air.
For instance, the crop-specific isolation distance to be maintained for the trials, based on the prescriptions of the Indian Minimum Seed Certification Standards is no guarantee against contamination. The IMSCS guidelines are meant for maintaining a particular level of genetic purity of a seed line in seed production practices and is not meant to prevent contamination from GMOs – a bee or wind may not follow the guidelines and GM contamination is very much possible even in the so-called self pollinated crops like rice despite these isolation distances. The genetic purity requirement for most crops is pegged at around 95% – by adopting these standards, the regulatory system is already allowing for 5% contamination (in fact, the chances are higher), whereas the Supreme Court Orders in 2007 say that “the GEAC shall take sufficient precautions to see that these trials are not causing any contamination to the cultivation of neighboring fields”. Mark the word “any contamination” in these orders again.
Biological and physical barriers have not prevented unintentional or intentional contamination from GM field trials in the past – this was testified by no less than the Agriculture-Ministry appointed Sopory Committee in its investigation of the Bt bikaneri cotton contamination scandal, that too in NARS (National Agricultural Research System consisting of hundreds of universities, institutes, directorates etc. related to agricultural research) campuses.
One of the conditions for permitting field trials is the submission of a validated event specific test protocol of 0.01% for contamination testing. This condition in practice is a joke since we have RTI replies from more than half a dozen institutes which have taken up field trials to show that no contamination testing actually takes place. However, SC Orders which laid down this condition say: “Prior to bringing out the GM material from the green house for conduct of open field trials, the approved institution should submit a validated event specific test protocol at an LOD of at least 0.01% to detect and confirm that there has been no contamination”. Once again, the Orders are being defied in the sense that there is no confirmation that there has been no contamination.
So, what is the fun in submitting such protocols? The GEAC of course does not even have oversight capacities over the trials it has approved, leave alone taking up contamination testing!
There are also some crop-specific post-harvest restrictions including the destruction by burning of all border rows, left over plants and plant parts from the entire experimental plot. This, we are yet to see being followed anywhere. In fact, there is sound documentation on video footage of plots where GM maize cobs were left out in the open after a so called ‘seed production trial’ was conducted by Monsanto in Bijapur in Karnataka. Apart from this, there is video footage of field trial farmers stating that they have indeed harvested GM food from the trial plots and consumed it as well as sold it in the open market. It is also stated that the site should be monitored for volunteer plants – however, there is documentation, confirmed by a German lab later on, that GM rice volunteer plants have been left in the trial plot by Mahyco in a field trial in Jharkhand.
I come back to the recent GEAC “recommendations”/approvals again.
Several applications that are in the advanced stage of trials in addition to ones that are in event selection stage etc.; many are in fact those of MNCs notorious for their monopolistic tendencies, in addition to illegal activities for which they have been fined (Monsanto, Dow etc.). There is ample evidence from other countries as well as some evidence from India that seed choices for farmers get greatly reduced for farmers, and seed prices shoot up exorbitantly. Academic studies are also showing farmers are making “irrational” seed decisions, which are like fads, without much ‘environmental learning’ driving such decision-making. This makes farm livelihoods riskier. Applications are also of GMOs which have been ‘rejected’ elsewhere.
For many, GMOs are basically a dangerous and costly distraction from real solutions that have to reach farmers immediately, which already exist. Hundreds of scientists from across the country have been writing to the government advising caution on GMOs and pointing out that there are viable, safe, farmer-controlled alternatives for all the problems that GMOs are touted as a solution for. These solutions also focus on productivity enhancement. Scientists have also effectively shown that food security myths around GM technology are unfounded and unrealized (http://indiagminfo.org/?p=540). There is also growing scientific evidence on the adverse impacts of GMOs (http://indiagminfo.org/?p=657).
It is in this context that stoppage of all open air field trials of GMOs in this country is the only scientific and logical thing to do. Anything otherwise is a matter of concern because it shows disregard of the government towards a precautionary approach, towards scientific evidence, towards democratic voices and towards its own promises to citizens of this country. The BJP’s and Prakash Javadekar’s integrity on this matter is certainly under test and the nation is waiting to see the result.
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