In monitoring of GM crop trials, ignorance is bliss

Features Saturday, September 13, 2014 - 05:30
By Aritra Bhattacharya The apparatus responsible for monitoring field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops is in a shambles, an investigation by The Statesman has revealed. The State Biotechnology Coordination Committee (SBCC) in Maharashtra, which is supposed to monitor these trials, has not met in years, with some members being unaware even of its existence. The situation in neighbouring Gujarat is also similar. On the other hand, the District Level Committee (DLC), which is supposed to monitor trials as well as prepare off-site emergency plans, is virtually non-existent. In effect, the story of monitoring of GM crop trials is a story of monitoring and regulation falling through the cracks of laid-down procedures on paper and functioning of processes on the ground.  Notably, the Centre, including the earlier UPA government, has been trying to push for the introduction of GM crops, despite stiff opposition from environmental and farmers’ groups, and of late RSS-affiliated organisations. The GM crops industry is backed by a powerful international lobby that operates secretively; not only have biotechnology companies been shut about disclosing field trial locations, but also, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee responsible for clearing field trials has stopped uploading minutes of its meetings and details of approvals on its website (see ‘Field trials of GM crops shrouded in secrecy’ in the edition of The Statesman dated 7 August). The functioning of SBCCs and DLCs seems to be part of this non-transparent functioning. The SBCC in Maharashtra, for instance, was reconstituted in 2013, ‘possibly to induct some new members’, but has not met even once since its constitution, forget conducting inspections in field trial locations, according to a source in the state environment department. For all practical purposes, then, the committee exists merely on paper. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity since he is not authorised to talk to the media, said, “The SBCC meets only when there is a complaint regarding violation of guidelines relating to field trials.” Complaints of violations are, however, highly improbable, since project proponents are unlikely to report violations in their own fields and DLCs are non-existent.  Take the case of trials of GM crops at the agricultural university in Rahuri in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district, for instance. The Statesman has been able to independently confirm through sources that field trials of at least one GM crop is on at the university, although industry body ABLE-AG (Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises – Agriculture Group), biotech giant Monsanto and the Department of Biotechnology refused to confirm or deny this on record. The district level committee, tasked with monitoring and ensuring safeguards under the Environment Protection Act, 1986 and supposed to function under the District Collector, however, is non-existent, said sources.                                                              The SBCC and DLC are constituted as per provisions under the ‘Rules for the Manufacture, Use, Import, Export and Storage of Hazardous micro-organisms/Genetically engineered organisms or cells’, notified on 5 December 1989 under the Environment Protection Act, 1986. The SBCC, as per the rules, has the powers to ‘inspect, investigate and take punitive action in case or violations of statutory provisions’ (see box). The DLC is responsible for finding out ‘hazards and risks associated with…installations and coordinate activities with a view to meeting any emergency’. The DLC must regularly submit its report to the SBCC/ Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC). On the ground though, none of this seems to be happening. A senior ICAR scientist who spoke to The Statesman on condition of anonymity agreed SBCCs in most cases exist merely on paper. “I don’t think the SBCC in Maharashtra has met even once in the last 12 years since it was constituted,” the scientist notes.  The apathy is apparent in the response of the Principal Secretary of Maharashtra’s Forest Department, Praveen Pardeshi, as regards functioning of the SBCC. “We have nothing to do with the SBCC. We have a State Biodiversity Board,” he said, although a government resolution (GR) dated 20 March 2013 relating to the constitution of SBCC lists the Principal Secretary, Forest Department, as one of the members.  Dr Abhay Choudhury from Mumbai’s Haffkine Institute is also listed as one of the members of the SBCC. He refused to comment on the working of the SBCC, saying it is the preserve of environment department that is in-charge of implementation of EPA. S K Goel, Additional Chief Secretary, Agriculture and Marketing, and also a member of the SBCC as per the GR, also brushed aside the question, saying he was not authorised to comment on it. The secretary of the environment department remained unavailable for comment. At least two members of the SBCC, however, confirmed that the committee had not met even once since it was reconstituted, and was not engaged in any monitoring of GM crop field trials. A GEAC PowerPoint presentation, possibly dated 2012, states that the GEAC, the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) and Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBSC) are responsible for approval of trials and SBCCs and DLCs are responsible for monitoring. The thirty-seventh report of the Committee on Agriculture, tabled in the Lok Sabha on 9 August 2012, states clearly that “monitoring during the field trials is the responsibility of SBCCs and DLCs”. It in fact notes how the MoEF tried to avoid any involvement of state governments in the case of field trials of GM crops, saying since monitoring of field trials was the responsibility of SBCCs and DLCs, which are entities of state governments, prior approval of states was not necessary’.  Dr S R Rao at the Department of Biotechnology in New Delhi, however, says that since SBCCs and DLCs ‘don’t function properly’, the GEAC and RCGM constitute a Central Monitoring Team to monitor field trials.  The senior ICAR scientist whom this correspondent spoke to, however, said these teams typically visit the field trial locations for a week and submit reports. Guidelines for field trials, on the other hand, point to the importance of monitoring from the stage of planting to at least a season after harvest.“There is a kind of brazenness in biotechnology companies now…there is no transparency, no disclosure of data,” says the scientist, adding that monitoring has become a ‘no-man’s issue’, with the biotechnology, agriculture and environment departments passing the buck. This ‘passing the buck’ is evident in Gujarat as well. The Forest and Environment Department of Gujarat, in response to an RTI query in 2012, stated that the SBCC had been constituted in 1999 and minutes of meetings could be obtained from the Agriculture and Cooperation Department, which was the nodal department for the EPA Rules of 1989. The latter, however, stated on record that “work of SBCC meeting is not being done by this department”.  Such loopholes only benefit the functioning of the biotechnology industry. Bt Cotton is the only GM crop allowed for cultivation in India; introduced in 2002 by Mahyco-Monsanto, almost 95 per cent of the cotton seeds in India today have Monsanto’s proprietary technology. Critics have argued that GM seeds are the biotechnology industry’s attempt to take control of the seed market in India, while proponents have raised the spectre of ‘feeding hunger’ and ‘pure science’ to promote GM crops. Science, however, also includes full disclosure of data and transparency, and the functioning of SBCCs and DLCs don’t seem to be helping that. This shorter version of this report first appeared in The Statesman.
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