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Indian parliamentary panel slams GM crops

Posted on behalf of K. S. Jayaraman.

An Indian Parliamentary panel yesterday urged the government to halt all open-field trials of transgenic crops until it develops a better system of monitoring and oversight. The panel also called for a complete overhaul of the regulatory system, saying that it “reflects a pro-industry tilt”, and claiming that it is riddled with conflicts of interest.

In the 389-page report, the standing committee on agricultural research also demands a “thorough probe” into how permission was initially granted in 2009 to commercialize Bt brinjal (also known as aubergine, or eggplant) (see ‘Bt brinjal splits Indian cabinet’). The crop was developed by Pune-based Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Company) in a joint venture with US seed giant Monsanto.

The committee said that it suspected a “collusion of the worst kind” behind the approval after it recorded a confession from the co-chairman of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee that he was “getting calls” from industry and a minister to grant approval. The government intervened in 2010 to bar Bt brinjal cultivation (see ‘India’s transgenic aubergine in a stew’)

“After critically analysing the evidence for and against the transgenic agricultural crops”, the committee’s report said that research and development on transgenic agricultural crops “should only be done in strict containment, and field trials under any garb should be discontinued forthwith”. The committee said it was more than convinced that there are better options available for increasing food production and productivity than transgenic crops.

The panel also called for labelling of all genetically modified (GM) products and an “all-encompassing umbrella legislation focused on ensuring the bio-safety, biodiversity, human and livestock health”.

The report was unanimously adopted by the cross-party committee, and took almost 3 years to complete after examination of more than 1,400 documents and interviews with about 50 experts and civil society representatives.

Regarding Bt cotton — the first and only crop approved for cultivation in India before the Bt brinjal saga — the committee has demanded an explanation of how thousands of tonnes of Bt cotton-seed oil got into the food chain over the past decade. It also said that “after the euphoria of a few initial years, Bt cotton cultivation has only added to the miseries of the small and marginal farmers”.

That conclusion stands in stark contrast to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences last month (see ‘Genetically modified cotton gets high marks in India’).

As Nature reported:

“Smallholder farmers in central and southern India who planted genetically modified (GM) cotton achieve larger yields, greater profits and a higher living standard than those who grow conventional cotton.”

Kavitha Kuruganti, a member of the coalition for campaigning group GM Free India, welcomed the parliamentary report as “a historic, comprehensive and well-grounded document that vindicates the positions taken by many state governments which have disallowed GM crops, including field trials”. Kuruganti adds that “it is also a politically important statement, since 17 members are from the United Progressive Alliance, the ruling coalition”.

“In that sense, the government has to pay heed” to the recommendations, she says.

In another blow to GM proponents, the panel’s report came a day after Maharashtra state cancelled Mahyco’s licence to sell its Bt cotton seeds (see Deccan Herald). The ban comes in the wake of complaints about the company having supplied seeds of inferior quality, which allegedly aggravated the agrarian crises in rural Maharashtra and spurred suicides among farmers.


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