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Food For Thought

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Despite last-minute clearances given to stalled field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops by former environment minister Veerappa Moily, seed companies have failed to benefit so far. With the brief window left in the ongoing sowing season, they remain hopeful and are mounting pressure on the new government to ease procedural requirements.

Among the UPA government’s many attempts to woo India Inc. in its final days was its approval of field trials for GM crops. However, the failure to officially intimate the seed companies of these approvals meant that field trials could not be undertaken at the beginning of the kharif season. Plus, the clearance given on 27 February came with the rider that state governments must approve the trials on a per-crop basis, leading to further delays, claim seed companies.

The approvals were a re-validation of the earlier clearance given by the regulator, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), in March 2013. It was applicable to 10 genetically engineered crops, among which were maize, rice, wheat and cotton. New applications were taken up in April 2014 but no formal announcement was made. The GEAC, which comes under the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), has had  three meetings in consecutive months since March to discuss proposals pending since last year. Though approvals have been reported in the media, no official letters were sent out and the decisions of the meetings were not put up on the website as per requirement. As a result, no immediate action on the ground was possible.

Monsanto India MD Gyanendra Shukla explains: “Our permit for maize trials, which was issued earlier, has been re-validated. For new proposals, however, we are waiting for a response from the GEAC.” Companies like Monsanto India, Bayer CropScience, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds, government universities and research institutes like the Directorate of  Oil Seeds Research, Central Potato Research Institute, International Crops Research Institute for Semi-arid Tropics and Indian Agricultural Research Institute have been at the forefront of the pro-GM debate in India. There are over 150 local and international private and public sector institutions developing and selling seeds.

Unhappy about the prolonged delay, since former environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan had, in 2013, suspended all GEAC meetings and field trials citing an ongoing case in the Supreme Court (SC), seed companies say India is, as a result, decades behind in science and technology development in the sector. Says Joerg Rehbein, head of Bayer CropScience Indian Subcontinent, “The delay in the approval of field trials has also significantly lowered the confidence level of companies involved in GM crop research.”

The Delayed Dialogue

Any new trials this year are subject to states granting no-objection certificates (NOC). In principle, states like Gujarat, Punjab and Maharashtra have approved the trials. But even with the in-principle approvals, there are crop-by-crop variations — for example, the unwillingness of Punjab to permit GM potato field trials. Again, states like Odisha and West Bengal have flatly refused to permit GM trials. The delay in issuing NOCs, along with other administrative protocols of tying up with the local agricultural institute or university and locating and leasing land, has left very little time in the current sowing season, say seed companies which complain of huge economic and time setbacks.
• As of 2011, 73% of the global GM market was controlled by 10 companies
• As of 2013, agricultural land under GM globally was 3.4%, or 170 million hectares, of the 5 billion hectares of total agricultural land
• Of this, 40.8% was in the US, 20.4% in Brazil, 14.03% in Argentina , 6.8% in Canada, 6.3% in India, 2.34% in China and
8.33% across 22 other countries
• 2012 was the first year in which developing countries accounted for a majority (52%) of the total GM harvest

Currently, market estimates place investment in agricultural bio-technology in India at around Rs 10,000 crore. Most seed companies, citing competition among other reasons, are unwilling to share numbers, especially in India where the industry is still in its infancy. For example, though it is known that Monsanto invests Rs 7,500 crore on in-breeding and biotechnology globally, spent just “a few crores” in India.

Given that development of a single strain in a particular plant costs close to Rs 500 crore and anything from 8-10 years, the seed manufacturers are eager to resolve concerns and start testing and commercialising their products.

Monsanto India’s Shukla believes that given the seasonal nature of agricultural research and its dependence on the monsoon, the timing of decisions with respect to trials is critical. Seetharama Nadoor, executive director with the Bangalore-based Association of Biotechnology-led Enterprises (ABLE), says he recently (almost two months after Moily’s clearance) received intimation from the MoEF that the GEAC will be functioning normally and all procedures in place for clearances will resume. He adds that the letter does not address some concerns of the companies waiting to start field trials. “We have written back to them to clarify three points — publish minutes of the last GEAC meeting online; send GEAC approval letter to the companies whose trials have been approved; and assist in getting state government NOCs,” says Nadoor.

After the 18-month limbo , the only  bright spot for biotech companies in the wake of the February clearance has been its affect on share prices — Monsanto India’s stock jumped 5 per cent while Bayer CropScience rose 1.41 per cent.

The Long And Short Of GM
The very mention of GM crops usually generates extreme reactions — either you hate it or you love it. Thus, many an approval is followed by a hasty withdrawal, a court stay order or government waffling. Says Ajay Kakra, associate director, Agriculture and Natural Resources practice, PwC India, while the technology is very promising, “the trouble starts in application, especially of food crops as there is no concrete data available on its implications on direct human consumption”.

The pending petition in the Supreme Court was filed in 2005 and was used by Natarajan to withhold permission for field trials. The court is yet to decide the case and is said to be studying the Technical Expert Committee’s reports that demand an overhaul of regulations, protection of bio-diversity and an independent monitoring body, among others, before allowing open field trials. Petitioners against GM crops claim Moily’s nod for trials can be interpreted as a violation.

Mhow-based Aruna Rodrigues, the lead petitioner in the Supreme Court for a moratorium on GM crops says the regulatory mechanism is lax and porous, marked by a serious conflict of interest. GM contamination of non-GM crops from field trials, even under stringent conditions, is a proven fact. In India, she points out, BNBt, a local cotton gene, was found contaminated with Monsanto’s Bt cotton; whether “accidental or deliberate” is not known, according to the S.K. Sopory Committee report. Rodrigues has submitted an additional affidavit in court against the February approval for open field trials — the SC is yet to take it up.

The issue of propriety of GM technology is a big concern in India where most farmers are poor. Over the years, Monsanto has sued and won against 100-odd farmers for infringement of patents — even in fields where farmers had no clue as to how GM traits entered produce from their fields.
A bumpy ride so far.
Mar 2002: Use of GM technology for commercial agricultural use allowed, starting with Bt cotton, the only GM crop grown commercially in India till date
Sep 2005: Writ petition filed by Aruna Rodrigues in SC seeking a moratorium on the release of any GM crop, pending a comprehensive and rigorous bio-safety protocol
Oct 2009: Bt brinjal cleared for commercialisation
Feb 2010: Moratorium imposed on the release of Bt brinjal after much protest
Feb 2010: MoEF minister Jairam Ramesh submits report on Bt brinjal, requesting an indefinite moratorium
May 2012: The Supreme Court constitutes the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) to look into the matter
Aug 2012: A parliamentary standing committee says that a high-level committee is needed to decide the fate of GM crops
Oct 2012: TEC submits an interim report, and then a final report in Aug 2013. It demands a revision of the regulations, evaluation of GMOs by an independent body. A ruling is still pending on the issue
Mar 2013: Jayanthi Natarajan, then MoEF minister, disallows further field trials based on TEC report; writes a note to the PMO voicing her concerns
Mar 2013: GEAC holds a meeting, nothing comes of it
Jan 2014: PM Manmohan Singh says GMO important to India’s food security; scientists ask SC to allow trials, list benefits of GMOs crops
Feb 2014: MoEF minister Veerappa Moily gives the go-ahead for open field trials, with the rider that state governments must approve of them first
Mar 2014: Rodrigues files an additional affidavit requesting the SC to take action on the recent clearance of field trials, since the matter is still sub judice
Apr 2014: Three court hearings between 22 Apr to 9 May; no judgement yet; next hearing on 15 July

Regulations to do with GM crops are full of loopholes, says Kakra. “There are two aspects to GM regulation — first, the rules for trials, which are stringent. Then, there is labelling, where India has rules for a few crops, leaving scope for many non-labelled crops to enter mainstream human consumption chains.” Others like Nadoor say  the technology is essential in India. For example, a recent estimate by the National Research Centre on Biotechnology put the annual loss to the pigeon pea crop (arhar dal) in the region of 30-40 per cent — largely due to pests and vagaries of the weather. The need for technology becomes all the more critical given that India already uses all its cultivable land, with virtually no room for expansion. 

Bayer CropScience’s  Rehbein says there is a lot of potential for GM crops in India. Citing the success of Bt cotton, he says, “A farmer can grow 2-3 crops a year compared to most Western countries where farmers can grow only 1-1.5.” He adds that the new government will give the sector a boost. “Based on the approvals, we aim to plant the trials in the kharif season subject to NOCs from the states.”
There are several Acts and rules that govern GMOs:
  • The release of transgenic crops, or genetically modified organisms (GMO), in India is governed by the Indian Environment Protection Act 1986
  • GMOs are covered by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the Ministry of Agriculture
  • In 1989, the government outlined the rules for manufacture, use, import, export and storage of hazardous microorganisms/ genetically engineered organisms or cells
  • Five authorities were created to manage GMOs — the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBSC), Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM), State Biotechnology Coordination Committee (SBCC) and District Level Committee (DLC). The last two are not fully operational as yet, while the GEAC is the apex body of the lot
  • Copyright issues for GMO come under the Indian Patent Act 1970, which outlines rules on patenting of seeds or commercial use of patented agricultural products

Hoping for the best, seed manufacturers are looking to streamline and regularise the process. Considering Gujarat is among the first and biggest users of Bt cotton — the only commercial GM crop in India — the hope is not baseless.  

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(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 30-06-2014)