News blog

Science panel urges halt to GM field trials in India

Posted on behalf of  K. S. Jayaraman.

The prospects for growing genetically modified (GM) food crops in India have receded further with the release of yet another damning report on 17 October.

A 5-member Technical Expert Committee (TEC) of scientists with expertise in agricultural biotechnology wants all open field trials stopped until better mechanisms for monitoring the trials and evaluating biosafety data are in place, and conflicts of interest in the regulatory body have been dealt with.

The panel was appointed by India’s Supreme Court in May in response to a petition from anti-GM activists. Its report echoes the conclusions of a parliamentary panel in August, which also called for a moratorium on field trials (see ‘Indian parliamentary panel slams GM crops’).

The TEC goes further, however, calling for a re-examination of biosafety data on all GM crops already approved for field trials, and recommending long-term and inter-generational feeding studies in rodents for all products, whether already approved or yet to be approved. It also wants to prohibit field trials of GM versions of crops for which India is a centre of origin or a centre of diversity and wants trials of herbicide-tolerant crops banned “until independent assessment of their impact and suitability in the Indian context”.

The panel also proposes a 10-year moratorium on GM food crops that use the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) gene — a period it considers reasonable to strengthen the regulatory regime which it found unsatisfactory in its present form “with a lack of full time personnel and limited expertise in biosafety science”. The approval and subsequent cancellation of a plan to commercialise Bt Brinjal (eggplant) caused an uproar in India in 2009 and 2010 (see ‘India’s transgenic aubergine in a stew’).

“It is worth noting that the TEC consists only of scientists,” says Kavitha Kuruganti of the Coalition for GM free India. “Further, 22 of the 31 submissions studied by the TEC in their nearly 4-month-long inquiry were from people with a scientific background” from both private and public sector institutions.

But pro-GM scientists say they are shocked. “The TEC’s recommendations fly in the face of what we know in science,” says Sivramiah Shantharam, a professor at Iowa State University’s Seed Science Centre. “The only option left is for the farmers of India — who have benefited from Bt cotton — to get down to the street and demand the technology. No government or political party can ignore cries of farmers.”

The Supreme Court will now make a decision on the basis of this report and other evidence. A ruling could come as soon as the end of this month.


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