Busting the claims of the Indian government and scientists that the country has a robust regulatory mechanism to test genetically modified (GM) crops, toxic loopholes are emerging. From 2008 to 2014, only 39 of the 133 GM crop field trials were properly monitored, leaving the rest for unknown risks and possible health hazards to common people.
Documents accessed by dna reveals that the GMO regulator, Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), under the ministry of environment and forests, has failed to comply with the monitoring norms and practices on the confined field trials. Even in the 39 cases where the GM monitoring was done, it was not uniform.
GM crops or genetically engineered (GE) crops are those in which genes are tweaked to get the desired characteristics by either inserting another gene or altering existing ones. Once prepared in laboratories, they are tested in fields, which is called confined field trials. The field trial always has a risk of pollen-driven contamination, which is uncontrollable.
Documents with dna reveals that, in 2008, only four out of 12 trials, that is 1/3 rd of trials, were monitored. The Central Compliance Committee (CCC) and monitoring-cum-evaluation committee, during their tenures, visited the sites only once while they were supposed to go at least four times during the trials. Similarly in 2009, only five out of 29 trials were monitored and only one visit of CCC was recorded.
In 2008, only four out of 12 trials were monitored by just one visit of CCC and the monitoring cum- evaluation committee. In 2009, only five out of 29 trials were monitored and one visit of CCC was recorded. The very next year, 14 out of 54 trials were monitored and only one trial has the monitoring details. The monitoring data for 2011 shows that five out of 16 trials were monitored and that too have minimal external monitoring from the regulators’ side. Even when the CCC found illegalities, no action was taken.
Incidentally, 2011 was the same year when biotech giant Monsanto’s maize trials were tested at Anand Agricultural University (AAU), Gujarat. The documents show that the CCC report was presented and a record of harvest also exists with signatures of the trial in-charge. However, there was no post-trial visit to the site by the monitoring team.
The same year, in another plot of AAU, housed at Derol, Monsanto’s herbicide-tolerant Bt Maize was planted but the sowing date is unrecorded. Only two of the four-member team visited the trial site.
In 2013, Monsanto and another transnational company, Syngenta Biosciences, were allowed to hold five field trials but only two of these were monitored, with one visit each. Interestingly, this happened despite one trial witnessing a huge protest/destruction by the public.
In 2014, three GM mustard trials of Delhi University were taken up – at two sites in Punjab and one in Delhi – during the rabi season. There are enough evidences that there were no post-harvesting fool-proof monitoring in these cases. Similarly, in Maharashtra’s Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapeeth (MPKV), Rahuri, field trials of Monsanto’s GM maize were undertaken, but there was no post-trial monitoring.
Despite these deficiencies and failures in the regulatory mechanism, the Centre has claimed in public debates as well as in the Supreme Court that everything about the regulatory system is healthy, rigorous and perfect.
Ironically, documentary evidence proves the opposite. Officials of MoEF and GEAC did not reply to dna queries.
Monitoring of GE plants is very important because they have posed high risks and cause uncontrollable contamination. This is undertaken at various stages like pre-sowing, sowing, and various stages of crop development, like harvest and post-harvest land use restriction. The monitoring agencies also have the authority to investigate contained facilities that may be used for storing regulated GE plant material.
From time to time, the GEAC has delegated the authority to monitor confined field trials to various bodies like RCGM’s Monitoring cum Evaluation Committee (MEC), SBCCs, DLCs, monitoring teams of state agricultural universities (SAUs) and Central Compliance Committee (CCC) constituted by GEAC/RCGM.
SC-appointed Technical Expert Committee says
Ban three kinds of GM crops
Herbicide-tolerant crops: These are crops genetically modified for a chemical substance, so that when it is sprayed, it kills the entire flora around the crop, except itself. India does not need this technology.
Bt food crops: Food crops inserted with Bt genes should not be allowed as a lot of evidences show the harmful impact of Bt genes.
India is the centre of origin of various crops and has a wide diversity in those crops. So the country should not genetically modify such crops. This approach is taken by several countries, including China, as it has not permitted GM soybean since it’s the centre of origin of the crop.
doi:10.1038/nindia.2014.14 Published online 31 January 2014
India is facing a deadlock over the approval of field trials of new genetically modified (GM) crops. The impasse stems from the delay in decision over the matter by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) under India’s Ministry of Forests and Environment (MoEF).
In 2005, anti-GMO activists filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court of India seeking moratorium on the release of any genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment pending comprehensive, transparent and rigorous bio-safety test protocols. The move, pro-biotech scientists feel, has put on hold opportunities to improve agricultural production through genetic engineering approaches initiated by the Indian government to feed its booming population. As a result, some important GM crops such as Bt-Brinjal, barstar-barnase, hybrid mustard and golden rice are awaiting clearance for field trials.
Bt cotton is the only GM crop allowed for commercial production in India. The fate of other new GM crops is pending in the Supreme Court following a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) on environmental release of such crops.
The Apex Court set up a Technical Expert Committee (TEC) of five scientists from the fields of molecular biology, toxicology, nutrition science, biodiversity and agriculture science to review GMO related concerns. Later, a sixth member — R. S. Paroda, former Director General of Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) — was also inducted in the TEC, when agriculture scientists pleaded that their views also be represented. The TEC submitted an interim report to the Supreme Court in October 2012 recommending an indefinite moratorium for the next 10 years on field trials of GM crops and complete ban on the commercial release of GM crops. However, Paroda was not part of this report.
The TEC submitted a final report in July 2013 with Paroda alleging that it was submitted without his consent and was “neither transparent nor objective” in terms of guidelines. Pardoa on his own submitted a confidential report to the Supreme Court recommending that field trials of GM crops be continued. His confidential report was made public on the directive of Supreme Court. The next hearing of the newly appointed TEC is scheduled in the Supreme Court on April 15, 2014.
A decade ago, cotton was a failure crop due to heavy insect-pest infestation that forced many farmers to commit suicide1.. In 2002, Bt-cotton was introduced in the Gujarat province without the approval of government agencies2. Soon it was popular among farmers due to greater benefits like 24% reduction in chemical pesticide applications, and increased crop yield about 31%3. According to Cotton Corporation of India Ltd, nearly 90% of the cotton cultivation area is under BT Cotton, making India the second largest cotton producer in the world. There were reports that because of Bt cotton, pesticide applications reduced to 50%, and several million cases of acute pesticide poisoning among cotton growers have also reduced drastically4.
About 75% of pesticides used in India are insecticides, which create serious risks to human beings, animals and environment due to inadequate regulatory control involving sales and distribution of highly toxic pesticides. Recently 18 organophosphate pesticides were documented in common vegetables collected from markets with the maximum pesticide concentration noticed in brinjal5. However, the field trial of Bt-brinjal, genetically engineered to reduce the pesticide consumption by controlling the major infestation due to fruit and shoot borer larvae, has been put on hold.
India is the largest importer of edible oil in the world — around 50% of its domestic consumption is imported6. To reduce dependence on oil imports, a genetically modified hybrid mustard DMH-11, producing higher oil-yield, was developed at the Delhi University. The field trials of mustard DMH-11 are awaited since March 2012.
Golden rice was genetically engineered to provide a supplement for pro-vitamin-A that could substantially reduce blindness due to vitamin-A deficiency in India, which has the greatest percentage of Vitamin A deficient (VAD) children in the world7. Field evaluation of transgenic rice with high iron/zinc is yet to see the light of the day. Several indigenous transgenic lines of crops such as cauliflower, cabbage, chickpea, groundnut, maize, okra, pigeonpea, potato, tomato and sorghum with insect resistance/agronomic traits are also waiting to be tested in fields. (More on the who’s who of GM research in India: Table 1)
The legal battle for the field trials of GM crops in India is very similar to the GM herbicide-tolerant sugar beet in the USA8, which was approved in 2005 by USDA for outdoor cultivation but banned in 2010 by a Californian district court due to lawsuits by various NGOs. Later, in June 2012, USDA again deregulated it for commercial production.
The deregulation decision of the USDA has also propelled the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to explore science-based opinion for cultivating the GMHT sugar beet in the European Union9.
The development of αAI transgenic peas was banned in Australia since 2005 when a risk assessment conducted by the CSIRO and Australian National University reported the negative reactions in mice due to transgenic peas. Recently it was reported that αAI transgenic peas are not more allergenic than beans or non-transgenic peas in mice10.
Bt rice may be the first commercially released staple food crop in Asia. In a 3-year field study on Bt rice, it was concluded that artificial wounding in roots did not enhance the release of Cry1Ab/1Ac protein into soil and water. Bt protein does not move into adjacent paddy fields along with irrigation water and does not persist in the soil for more than two months11.
In Canada, about 80% canola oil is produced using the barstar-barnasetransgene hybrids, which have been deregulated in Europe, as they are not found to be harmful to animals and human beings. The University of Delhi also used a similar technology to produce hybrid DMH-11 in Brassica juncea. The DMH-11 outdoor cultivation should not pose any fear of outcrossing as its wild relatives are not present in India. Golden Rice can be boiled, steamed or even fried in many different ways, only about 10% loss of pro-vitamin-A was observed during the cooking of GM rice12. Rice is a self-pollinating crop and should not pose any outcross threat to other crops. Thus, cultivation of golden rice may be useful for India with the highest number of vitamin A deficient children in the world.
Recently, India passed the ‘Food Security Bill’ to ensure that no one sleeps hungry. The bill to make ‘food’ a legal right may cost about 1.3 trillion rupees ($23.9bn) per year. This gigantic challenge can’t be achieved without improving our existing crops that provide lesser yields due to damage caused by insect-pests and diseases.
According to the latest report of UN’s food and agriculture body FAO, India lags behind in the world average yield of crops. In addition, agriculture sector is facing the problem of climate change, shrinking cultivation land, water resources and deterioration of soil quality. Therefore, to fulfill the outgrowing population, government is encouraging plant biotechnologists to generate better crops with pest resistance, enhanced nutrition and higher yields.
The government recently introduced a new BRAI Bill 2013 in Parliament that will allow Indian scientists to conduct GM research without any interference. However, this Bill is pending with the Parliamentary Standing Committee.
Several Indian and international companies like Monsanto Holdings Private Ltd, Bayer Bioscience Pvt Ltd, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co Ltd (Mayhco), Syngenta Biosciences Pvt Ltd, BASF and public funded institutions such as the Central Institute of Cotton Research, Nagpur, Directorate of Oilseed Research, Hyderabad and Directorate of Rice Research Hyderabad are waiting to conduct field trials for event selection of certain GM varieties of cotton, maize, rice, wheat and castor.
The trials are to be conducted in designated farms of University of Agriculture Sciences in various states. The clearances are put on hold keeping in mind the ongoing case in the Supreme Court challenging the existing regulatory mechanism for GM crops in the country. It is hoped that the logjam on GM crops in India will be over soon as technological change is an ongoing natural process that may be difficult to keep on hold for long if poverty and hunger have to be fought head-on.
[The views expressed in this commentary are that of the authors’.
Author affiliations: Shashi Kumar & Raj K. Bhatnagar are from the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, New Delhi; Keshab R. Kranthi from Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur, Maharashtra and Swapan K. Datta from Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Division of Crop Science, New Delhi, India.]
Coalition for GM free India Congratulates Indian Govt for stopping the approval of GM crop Field Trials.
Urges it to keep our food and farming free of GMOs
The Coalition for a GM Free India today congratulated the Central govt on responding to the growing scientific evidence and opposition fromstate governments against Genetically Modified (GM) crops and putting a hold on all open field trials approved in March, 2013. According tomedia reports the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests has decided to reverse the permissions given by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) in March, 2013, given that there is a case in the Supreme Court on the matter and there is a need for widespread deliberations on a matter of such significance.
Reacting to the this new development Sridhar Radhakrishnan, Convenor, Coalition for a GM free India said, “It is heartening to see that theMinistry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) and the Union Government are finally being responsible to science and responsive to the citizensin the matter of open air experiments of risky GM crops.” He further stated, “One hopes that the government will not be arm twisted to permitopen environmental releases/field trials of GM crops by the powerful biotech seed industry and their promoters within the government”.
Earlier this week GEAC had put out the minutes of March 22nd meeting in the public domain after a delay of almost 2 months . The minutesshowed that the 16 member GEAC has given approvals for almost all the applications that they had received on field trials of GM crops. Thisincludes GM varieties of rice, wheat, maize, cotton and castor. There were 25 applications which included majority of which were forextension of the approvals given last year, and which couldn’t be conducted due to State governments denying permission or refusing to giveNOC for field trials in the respective states. One of the permissions pertained to RoundUp Ready Wheat by Mahyco, with the American seedgiant Monsanto’s proprietary technology.
RR wheat and Monsanto has been embroiled in the latest GM contamination scandal in USA, where RR wheat from field trials done yearsago was found in a farmer’s field in Oregon State. While Monsanto and USDA, which gave permissions for these trials, are still unable to findthe reasons for this contamination, American farmers have been severely impacted with Japan, South Korea, Philippines and the EuropeanUnion banning or restricting imports of wheat owing to threat of GM contamination. A similar contamination had rocked the US in 2006 whenfield trials of herbicide tolerant GM rice, LL rice, of Bayer, had ended up contaminating the rice supply chain. Bayer Crop Science had tofinally settle a class action suit filed by affected farmers for 750 million US dollars. Interestingly the LL rice of Bayer has also been approvedfor field trials by GEAC in the last meeting.
“It is shocking that even after repeated lessons on how field trials can lead to contamination of our food and seed supply GEAC is mindlesslygiving approvals for field trials left right and centre. This, despite published evidence on the impacts of GM crops on human health, ourbiodiversity and farmers livelihoods and repeated statements by state governments denying permission for such open field trials” said ArunaRodrigues, one of the petitioners of the PIL on stopping all environmental releases/field trials of GM crops. The Union of India is therespondent in the case. She further stated that “GEAC seems to be in a hurry to permit field trials disregarding the fact that the SupremeCourt is slated to hear on the final report by the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) it has set up to look into this matter”.
The Technical Expert Committee (TEC) comprising of experts from the fields of molecular biology, toxicology, biodiversity, nutrition scienceetc was set up by Supreme Court., In October 2012, it submitted its interim report highlighting the potential impacts of GM crops and theinadequacy of the existing regulatory system to assess the impacts of GM crops to human health, environment and socio-economic aspectsand to safely conduct field trials. It has recommended a total revamping of the system, pointing to the potential impacts to agro biodiversity,which is critical for further development of crops. It has also recommended against genetic modification of crops like rice for which India is acentre of origin. Besides this, it has also reccomended a 10 year moratorium on any open release/field trials of Bt crops and a moratorium onherbicide tolerant HT crops until an independent assessment is done on its impacts on human health, environment and farm livelihoods.
Hundreds of scientists, atleast 20 farmer Unions and more than 500 public-interest organisations had sent letters to the Supreme Courtendorsing the recommendations of the TEC’s interim report.
The Coalition for a GM free India hails this decision by the MoEF to withhold the permissions for field trials across the country. It further requested that the MoEF should inform respective state govt. about its decision. The State Governments should stop giving permissions in the state & if permitted, they should inform project proponents to stop field trials with immediate effect.
The Coalition for a GM free India also urges the Union government not to bow to pressures from multinational seed corporations and stand bythe interests of the citizens of the country. Reiterating the demand to keep our food and farming free from GM crops, it also urged thegovernment to drop the BRAI Bill and instead bring in a regulatory system that would safeguard biosafety from the introduction of riskytechnologies like GM crops.
For more information
Sridhar Radhakrishnan (09995358205)
Kavitha Kuruganthi (09393001550)
Coalition for a GM-Free India is a broad national network of organizations, scientists, farmer unions, consumer groups and individuals committed to keep the food andfarms in India free of Genetically Modified Organisms and to protecting India’s food security and sovereignty.
Coalition for a GM-free India
A-124/6, First Floor, Katwaria Sarai, New Delhi 110 016, Phone/Fax: 011-26517814
Website: www.indiagminfo.org, email : email@example.com, Follow us on Facebook page – GM Watch India