A bill to create ‘Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of In- dia’ (BRAI) was tabled in Lok Sabha and if approved, will re- place the existing Environment Protection Act (EPA) 1989 rules and the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Authority (GEAC) as a regulatory body.
The basic assumptions on which the bill is based are that
a) ‘Modern Biotechnologies (read Genetically Modified crops) are essential for improving agriculture’ and b) ‘their safety can be easily be ensured’ by following certain proto- cols and be regulated. Let’s see how true the assumptions are.
It is almost seventeen years since the introduction of the first Genetically Modified crop in the world and still 99% of the global GM cropped area is under four crops soybean (47%), maize (32%), cotton (15%) and canola (5%) with 90% of it being only in five countries (USA, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and India). Though several traits are talked about, only two traits, Bt crops for insect resistance and herbicide tolerance, are largely commercialised.
In the last seventeen years, umpteen number of reports and research papers have pointed out to serious biosafety problems. In India, Bt cotton was introduced in 2001 with lots of promises that it will help cotton farmers who are in seri- ous distress and reduce high use of pesticide. After 11 years, we still find that 68% of the farmers’ suicides are from four major cotton growing areas and more than 80% of them are cotton growing farmers. The pesticide use has initially come down due to reduction in the bollworm infestation, but again increased with the increasing sucking pests. There were number of other problems like animal morbidity after feeding on bt cotton leaves, skin allergies to agriculture workers dur- ing boll burst stage and reducing soil fertility due to impact on soil microorganisms etc which still remain un addressed.
When bt cotton was introduced, the biosafety tests done before commercialization claimed that contamination is not a major issue as out crossing is minimal and can be taken care. But the Bikaneri Narma Bt cotton variety, released by University of Agriculture Sciences, Dharwar and Central Institute of Cotton research was found to be contaminated with Mahyco/ Monsanto’s proprietary event and was forced to withdraw from commercial cultivation. Given that India is the centre of origin and centre of diversity for important food crops like rice and brinjal, the contamination would be inevitable, and there seems to be no way of addressing this Issue.
Parliamentary Standing Committee on GM foods and the Technical Expert Committee appointed by Supreme Court of India both have clearly pointed out to these problems and have suggested to improve the regulatory system and put a ban on the further field trials and commercialisation till such system is put in place.
Instead of addressing these issues, the bill tends to dilute the current regulatory system, override the state gov- ernments role in decision making, by-passing citizens right to information by including a clause on confidentiality of com- mercial information, lack of democratic functioning and pub- lic participation in decision making.
India being a signatory to the Nagoya – Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress, has to establish a strong liability and redress mechanism. But the bill doesn’t seems to have included any such clauses and the penal clauses for erring are very weak.
sw Therefore, the current the current format of the bill has to be immediately be withdrawn and formulate a new regula- tory regime around GMOS with the primary mandate of pro- tecting health of people and the environment from the risks of modern biotechnology. It should necessarily be based on ‘Precautionary Principle’ as the central guiding principle. Have strong risk assessment – (a) prescribing rigorous, sci- entific protocols (b) to also take up independent testing by having all facilities and institutional structures in place for the same and evaluating the results (c) include long term and cumulative health and environmental impact assessment, (d) strong post market monitoring system of every GMO released into the environment.