Indian biotech regulator approves field trials for 15 GM crops, draws harsh criticism

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Farmers destroy genetically modified rice in Bangalore. Photo via The Hindu.

India’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) recently approved field trials for 15 new varieties of genetically modified crops, including rice, mustard, cotton, chickpea and brinjal. The decision, GEAC and government quickly came under fire from farmers’ groups, political groups and mainstream Indian newspapers. Many pointed to the ethical conflicts within the GEAC and the lack of transparency in the approval process, with some calling for the disbanding of the GEAC.

“Giving a clearance to GM crop field trials is a betrayal of people’s trust. The people who had elected the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power are feeling deceived,” said Ashwini Mahajan, national co-convenor of Swadeshi Jagaran Manch (SJM), the powerful economic wing of Hindu nationalist movement Sangh Parivar. “They had voted on the promises made in its manifesto and the speeches made during the election campaign.”

The current ruling party, BJP, is also the political wing of the Sangh Parivar. It stated in its April 2014 election manifesto that “GM foods will not be allowed without full scientific evaluation on the long-term effects on soil, production and biological impact on consumers.”

The GEAC has approved a total of 36 field trial proposals in the last three months, including the 15 new approvals. The GEAC did not meet for a year between March 2013 and March 2014, which led to a backlog of 70 applications, according to GEAC chairman Hem Pande. Pande told major Indian newspaper The Hindu that the Indian field trials were needed to investigate the GM crops’ viability in India.

In a statement released by the SJM, Mahajan pointed out that “neither the government nor the GEAC has disclosed as yet the contents of the promised scientific evaluation, if any, or what changed between April 7, 2014 (the day the BJP released its election manifesto) and July 18, 2014, when the field trials of GM food crops were approved.”

The Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), an Indian farmers’ representative organization also affiliated with Sangh Parivar, turned to the Environment and Forests Minister Prakash Javadekar and asked for “annulment” of the field trial approvals.

“Our stand is very clear; we totally oppose the decision of the environment ministry,” BKS general-secretary Prabhakar Kelkar told another major Indian news outlet Business Standard. “We want the government to withdraw the permission for field trials immediately.” He noted that foreign biotech companies have been lobbying for field trial approvals and suggested that the government might have yielded to pressure.

Javadekar clarified that the GEAC’s approvals did not amount to a government decision. He tweeted:

The events led to strong criticism of the GEAC’s regulatory processes. The Hindu commented in an editorial:

Clearly, there can be no credible argument against scientific experiments in agriculture that advance the goal of developing plant varieties that can withstand drought, resist pests and raise yields to feed the growing world population. But this should be done through a transparent regulatory process that is free of ethical conflicts. Proponents of GM crops funding research in agricultural universities represents one such conflict. To aid transparency, research findings should be made available in the public domain for independent study.

The New Indian Express, another mainstream Indian daily, likewise called for transparency in an editorial:

The Modi government must take steps for modernisation of agriculture but should do so with caution and after adequate scientific verification. It must first put in place a strong regulatory mechanism for biotechnological research which is free of ethical conflicts and which addresses the concerns of all the stakeholders.

The Sangh Parivar groups, SJM and BKS, have since asked Javadekar to disband the GEAC. “The present Genetic Engineering Approval Committee is an objectionable body,” Mahajan told online Indian political news outlet Scroll. “It must immediately be disbanded or reconstituted because it consists of the same people who were close to the previous government.”

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