In a surprise move, the government has divested “Genetic Engineering Approval Committee” (GEAC) of its role as approver of GM crops, such as BT cotton, by changing it to “Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee”.
The panel itself had no role in its re-designation and industry watchers say this deepens the uncertainty over India’s highly competitive but fiercely opposed GM crops, pushed by both the public and private sector .
The change was effected through a Gazette notification on July 22, which the HT has viewed. It states: “…for the words Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, wherever they occur, the words, Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, shall be substituted.”
“We were not consulted. The government took a decision on its own. But we were told our mandate would not change,” GEAC co-chairperson Arjula Reddy told HT.
Key UPA ministers have been sharply divided on GM food crops. Environment minister Jairam Ramesh has advocated caution, while farm minister Sharad Pawar has said meeting the country’s increasing food demands hinged on breakthroughs, such as GM crops.
Until a new biotech regulatory Bill -- which will replace the GEAC -- is signed into law, which is still a long way off, a state of limbo over GM crops looms large. Even if it is enacted, it may take up to three years to be implemented, according to experts.
“We would like the GEAC to remain the approval committee until then. Its statutory powers as a scientific body should not be diluted or transferred to a political authority,” Shanthu Shantaram of the Association for Biotech-led Enterprises said.
Projects awaiting or granted approval, including new variants of Bt cotton, may stall. A key application is from Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech, now ready with its Roundup Ready Flex, a Bt Cotton variety that can survive weedicides, or weed-killing agents.
In February, the Centre had shelved the launch of the country’s first genetically modified food, BT brinjal, after it was cleared by the GEAC.
Groups opposed to GM crops have questioned the GEAC’s impartiality itself in the Supreme Court, a case still pending. However, till it is decided, the court asked the GEAC to continue.