By: Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar
The battle over testing of genetically modified crops in India took a new turn this week with the Bharatiya Janata party-led government putting field trials on hold.
The move reverses the previous Congress party-led government’s pushfor GM trials, which had resulted in approvals in the past few months for rice, maize, wheat and chickpea crops. Trials are the first step towards sale and plantation of GM seeds in India.
The BJP, which came to power in May, took a stand against GM crop trials in its election manifesto.
But this week’s announcement came after the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (Forum for National Awakening) and the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (Indian Farmers Association), two grassroots groups affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist outfit that supports the BJP, met environment minister Prakash Javdekar on Tuesday to reiterate their opposition to holding GM trials.
The groups expressed concern about the potentially unknown effects on health and biodiversity as well as about the longer-term prospect of putting food production in the hands of a few multinational companies. “If a country’s food production becomes overly dependent on seeds and other inputs from a handful of such companies, will it not compromise its food security?” said the Manch in a press statement.
The biotech industry responded with dismay to the news. Stocks of Monsanto India slipped. An association of leading biotech companies in India criticised the government’s decision as “anti-science, anti-domestic research recommendations which seem motivated to kill the biotechnology sector in India.” Field trials are necessary, proponents say, to test the efficacy of seeds in real-world conditions.
But the introduction of GM crops has always been controversial in India. Opposition ranges across political lines, and many states, worried about contamination, refuse to allow field trials within their borders. Bt cotton is the only commercially available GM crop in India.
New crop trials have been effectively on hold since late 2012, after asupreme court-appointed expert panel recommended suspension for 10 years until regulatory and monitoring systems could be strengthened. The court, the country’s highest, is hearing a public interest litigation against GM trials that is likely to be decided this year.
A parliamentary committee on agriculture has also supported a moratorium on trials. In March, the committee said “further research and development on transgenics in agricultural crops should be done only in strict containment and field trials should not be undertaken till the government puts in place all regulatory, monitoring, oversight, surveillance and other structures.”
Even the previous government was internally at odds on the issue. Former prime minister, Manmohan Singh, saw biotechnology as key to food security and warned against succumbing to “unscientific prejudices”. But two of Singh’s own environment ministers stalled GM trials. It was only when Veerappa Moily took over as environment minister early this year that the process of approving the one-acre field trials restarted.
Since March the genetic engineering approval committee – a statutory body under the environment ministry – has cleared the bulk of the 60 trial applications that had been pending for a year. Most of the applications were for new crop trials.
These approvals are now on hold until the new government decides what to do. Elected on a mandate for economic growth, Narendra Modi’s administration is not expected to be particularly friendly to environmental groups. But on the issue of GM crops environmentalists appear to be on the same page as the nationalist groups that support the BJP.
This unlikely convergence seems particularly ironic in the light of a recent report by an Indian intelligence agency that names anti-GM groups such as Greenpeace India and Gene Campaign as one of the many “anti-national” foreign-funded NGOs hampering India’s economic progress.
Originally Published: The Guardian