1. Genetically Modified Crops and Regulations in India

Genetically modified crops or GM crops are plants that are used in agriculture. The DNA of GM crops has been modified using genetic engineering techniques. In the world’s cropland, more than 10% is planted with GM crops.

In most of the cases, the aim is to introduce a new trait to the plant which does not occur naturally in the species like resistance to certain pests, diseases, environmental conditions, herbicides etc.

Genetic Modification is also done to increase nutritional value, bioremediation and for other purposes like production of pharmaceutical agents, biofuels etc.

The Concerns regarding Genetically Modified Crops

Most people agree that GM products may not present a greater health risk than conventional foods on the market. However, critics opposed to GM crops for various reasons, including environmental issues, the safety of GM food, the commercial interests behind genetically modified crops, intellectual property rights, etc.

Arguments in favour of GM Crops

The proponents believe that genetically modified technologies have been in existence for around 15 years globally, particularly in places including Brazil and China. Norman Borlaug, generally known by the father of Green Revolution, on his visit to India in March 2005, advocated the production of genetically modified (GM) food to prevent hunger worldwide. The laureate who passed away in 2009 announced that “it is easier to die eat GM food rather than to die of hunger.”

  • Former prime minister, Manmohan Singh, saw biotechnology as key to food security and warned against succumbing to “unscientific prejudices”.

  • President Pranab Mukerjee stated that the concerns about their potential threats (GM crops) should be addressed by internationally accepted safety assessment procedures. ICAR must contribute to the public debate and provide guidance on this sensitive issue,.
  • Indian intelligence agency 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.

  • Agriculture scientists at research  institutions such as the IARI, ICAR, and various universities pushing for ‘field trails’ of GM crops claiming that the evaluation of efficiency as well as food and environmental protection is necessary for ‘confined field trials.’

  • A group of notable scientists had met under ‘father of green revolution’ MS Swaminathan at National Academy of Agricultural Sciences ( NASA) and issued a 15-point resolution in favour of GM crops.

  • Usually, up to 30 insecticide sprays are required for a brinjal crop. This is indirectly linked to human consumption. If we cultivate and eat Bt brinjal, we can ingest some of the genes inserted into the seed to make the crop resistant to pest and herbicides. Eventually, we will see which one of the two is less dangerous– says S.S. Gosal, Research Director, Punjab University of Agriculture.

Arguments against GM crops

Organisations such as Greenpeace , argue that the GM crops don’t yield better results, but push the farmers into debt. They lose their sovereign right over seeds as they are forced to buy GM seeds and technologies from multinational corporations. The increasing incidence of suicide by farmers cultivating Bt cotton is cited as an example of the perils of GM crops in a country such as India. Besides the suspect merits of GM crops, what the opponents also say is that once they are released into the environment, it’s irreversible.

Regulatory Mechanisms in India

The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) is the top biotechnology regulator in India. In compliance with the Environment Protection Act 1986 of the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF), the Committee is functioning as the statutory body. It was previously known as Genetic Engineering approval committee. GEAC is responsible for providing permits for the conduct of huge-script open field experiments and approvals, and also for commercial release of biotech crops according to the EPA 1986 “Rules for Manufacturing, Use, import, Export and Storage of Hazardous Microorganisms / Genetically Engineered Organisms or Cells 1989.”

The Rules of 1989 also define five competent authorities i.e. the Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBSC), Review Committee of Genetic Manipulation (RCGM), Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), State Biotechnology Coordination Committee (SBCC) and District Level Committee (DLC) for the handling of various aspects of the rules.

PS: A Biotechnology Regulatory Authority was proposed, but the bill got lapsed due to the dissolution of 15th Loksabha.

Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC)

  1. The Committee shall function as a Statutory Body under the Ministry of Environment & Forests for approval of activities involving large-scale use of hazardous living microorganisms and recombinants in research and industrial production from the environmental angle as per the provisions of rules 1989.

  2. The Committee shall also be responsible for approval of proposal relating to release of genetically engineered organisms and products into the environment including experimental field trials as per the provisions of Rules, 1989.

  3. approval is the responsibility of the Committee for plans involving living modified organisms falling within the risk category  Ill and above in recombinant pharmaceutical production/importation or where the final outcome of recombinant pharmaceutical products in itself is a living modified organism.

  4. The Committee may co-opt other members/experts to the GEAC in accordance with the provisions of Section 4, para 3 of the Rules, 1989 as necessary.

  5. The Committee may also appoint subgroups/sub-committees/expert committee to undertake specific activities related to compliance of biosafety.

  6. One-third members of the GEAC will constitute the quorum for convening the meeting.

  7. The members of the GEAC will be required to sign a ‘Statement of Declaration of Independence’ and ‘Statement of Confidentiality’ (as per enclosed proforma).

  8. The Committee shall function for a period of three years from the date of issue of this notification.

  9. With the approval of the Chairman GEAC, if required, representative of other Ministries and other experts may be invited as ‘Special Invitees’ to participate in the meeting of the GEAC depending on the issues to be
    discussed.

  10. Major companies interested in Genetically Modified crops in India include Monsanto India, Mahyco and BASF. The industry body —

  11. Association of Biotech Led Enterprises- Agriculture Group (ABLE-AG) wants a progressive push to the march of GM technology in India.

Genetically Modified Crops in India

The country has yet to approve commercial cultivation of a GM food crop. The only genetically modified cash crop under commercial cultivation in India is cotton.

Bt Cotton

For the time being, the only genetically modified crop that is under cultivation in India is Bt cotton which is grown over 10.8 million hectares. Bt cotton was first used in India in 2002.

Bt Brinjal

The GEAC  in 2007, recommended the commercial release of Bt Brinjal, which was developed by Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company) in collaboration with the Dharward University of Agricultural sciences and the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University. But the initiative was blocked in 2010.

GM-Mustard

Dhara mustard hybrid-11 or DMH-11 has been established by the Centre for genetic manipulation of Crop Plants at the University of Delhi, as the genetically modified mustard. Researchers at the University of Delhi have developed hybridized DMH-11 mustard utilizing genetic modification “barnase / barstar” technology. This is a crop that has the resistance to herbicides tolerant (HT). If the Center accepts this, the first GM plant to be approved for cultivation in the country would arrive after Bt Cotton and the first transgenic food crop.

Controversies and Moratoriums associated with GM Crops in India – Timeline

  • 2002 – Bt cotton was introduced in India.

  • 2006 – Activists had filed a PIL against the GM crops in the SC.

  • 2010 – The then environmental minister Jairam Ramesh blocked the release of Bt Brinjal until further notice owing to a lack of consensus among scientists and opposition from brinjal-growing states. No objection certificates from states were made mandatory for field trials.

  • 2012 – In 2012, the parliamentary standing committee on agriculture, in its 37th report had asked for an end to all GM field trials in the country.

  • 2013 July – New crop trials have been effectively on hold since late 2012 after a supreme court-appointed an expert panel recommended suspension for 10 years until regulatory and monitoring systems could be strengthened. Though the SC panel suggested a moratorium on GM trails, there was no official verdict from the Supreme Court on this issue.

  • 2013 July – Environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan put on hold all trials following SC panel’s suggestions.

  • 2014 – In 2014, her successor, Veerappa Moili turned the way for trails. (NB: Two of Manmohan Singh’s own environment ministers had stalled GM trials earlier, but Veerappa Moily took an opposite stand and the process of approving the one-acre field trials was restarted.)

  • 2014 March – GEAC (UPA government) approved field trials for 11 crops, including maize, rice, sorghum, wheat, groundnut and cotton.

  • 2014 July – In July 2014, 21 new varieties of genetically modified (GM) crops such as wheat, rice, maize and cotton have been approved for field trials by the NDA government. The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) — consisting mostly of biotechnology supporters — rejected just one out of the 28 proposals up for consideration. However, Six proposals were rejected for want of more information.

  • 2016: GEAC gave green signal to GM Mustard for field trial, but SC stayed the order and sought public opinion on the same.

  • There are as many as 20 GM crops already undergoing trials at various stages.

Practice question:

  1. Critically examine the pros and cons of GM crops and illustrate a way forward.
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