A technical expert committee set up by India’s Supreme Court, has this week recommended an indefinite moratorium on the field trials of genetically modified crops until the government tables suitable mechanisms for regulation and safety.
The expert committee, consisting of eminent scientists and agriculturalists, noted in its report to the Supreme Court that GM field trials for food crops intended for commercialisation should stop until sufficient in-depth studies to ascertain their long-term safety can in their opinion conclusively prove their safety.
This will not please the powerful agriculture minister, Sharad Pawar, who had recently stood in support of GM food, arguing that it was necessary to satisfy the growing requirements of the country. He made the point at a Cabinet meeting while speaking on the Food Security Bill that will provide cheap food for 67 per cent of the country’s population.
Major regulatory gaps
"Based on the examination of safety dossiers, it is apparent that there are major gaps in the regulatory system. These need to be addressed before issues related to tests can be meaningfully considered. Till such time, it would not be advisable to conduct more field trials," the committee reported.
On the modified crops that are currently permitted - Bt rice, brinjal and mustard - the committee recommended that "the release of GM crops for which India is a centre of origin or diversity should not be allowed".
The expert committee also refused to give their approval to herbicide-tolerant crops, saying these would most likely “exert a highly adverse impact” over time on sustainable agriculture, rural livelihoods and the environment.
The report comes at a time when there are differences over the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill, 2013, which is pending review by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forest.
In 2010, the then environment and forests minister Jairam Ramesh imposed an indefinite moratorium on the commercial introduction of GM brinjal following several public hearings.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture, in a report August 2012 had asked for ban on GM food crops in the country, while the agriculture industry has been calling for their introduction to ensure food security.
More than 150 scientists wrote to the Environment and Forest Minister Jayanthi Natarajan earlier this year, raising concerns about GM crops.
Their primary concern was that the agriculture ministry is allegedly making a case for GM crops by stating that the technology is absolutely needed for India's food security.