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India: Ministries Agree to Create New Regulator

India: Ministries Agree to Create New Regulator

India: Ministries Agree to Create New Regulator

India: Ministries Agree to Create New Regulator

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 - Jacob P. Koshy, , June 16, 2010

The ministries of environment and science seem to have resolved their differences over who will govern the entry of genetically modified (GM) crops in India. The controversial genetic engineering approval committee, or GEAC, which currently gives the nod for the commercial release of GM crops, is likely to be integrated with a biotechnology regulator proposed by the science ministry, two ministry officials said on condition of anonymity.

This will relegate GEAC, which functions under the environment ministry, to an advisory role within the autonomous Biotech Regulatory Authority of India (Brai), although its opinion will still carry weight, the officials said.

The move will be included in a revised draft of the Bill to set up Brai, likely to be introduced in Parliament in a couple of months. The science ministry’s department of biotechnology is drafting the Bill in consultation with the law ministry.

The Environment Protection Act mandated GEAC to ascertain the safety of GM plants and organisms before they are commercially released. But it came under fire after revelations that several GEAC members were involved in developing transgenic seeds and were on the advisory boards of biotech seed developers. Activists said this was a serious conflict of interest.

“There is rarely dissent among GEAC members. While I have repeatedly pointed out loopholes in the biosafety data submitted by companies, they’ve mostly been glossed over by GEAC. And there are several conflicts of interests among members,” said Pushpa Bhargava, who attends GEAC meetings as a Supreme Court-nominated observer.

Independent scientists say that an independent regulator is essential to inspire public confidence in transgenic seeds as well as aid research. “Unless there’s an independent arbitrator, transgenic research cannot continue,” said M.S. Swaminathan, eminent agriculture scientist who had first recommended the creation of a biotech watchdog.

The science ministry proposed to set up Brai, seeking to do away with GEAC and giving regulatory powers to a three-member panel of experts. But such a move would go against the Environment Protection Act, which places the onus of checking the release of “hazardous” substances with the environment ministry.

“Technically, a GM organism can be interpreted as hazardous according to principles of toxicology. So that was one of the roadblocks in negotiations between the two ministries,” said one of the science ministry officials. “You can’t have two statutory bodies ruling on the same thing. Thus integrating GEAC (with Brai) as an advisory body does look like a sensible solution to the impasse,” the official said.

Even the environment ministry has at times lacked confidence in GEAC’s judgement. Environment minister Jairam Ramesh overruled GEAC’s decision to allow commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal, the first genetically modified food crop to be created for Indian farms, and recommended that GEAC be referred to as an “appraisal” instead of an “approval” committee.

Although Bt cotton is the only approved transgenic crop in Indian fields right now, transgenic varieties of food crops such as brinjal, rice and tomato are in advanced stages of trial. With policymakers urging seed developers to increase farm productivity, multinational firms such as Monsanto India Ltd, Bayer Bioscience Pvt. Ltd and EI DuPont India Pvt. Ltd have made investments in improving and developing a variety of GM seeds.