The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has decided to expand its pool of experts to smoothen the controversy-ridden process of approval. The issue of GM crops has been a contentious one in India. It flared up a few years ago during the tenure of Jairam Ramesh as the environment minister, when he had to put a moratorium on commercialisation of Bt brinjal, under pressure from NGOs and activists. At present, the controversy is around application for allowing commercialisation of GM mustard, which has been developed by Delhi University’s Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants. If GM mustard gets the green light from the GEAC, it will become the first transgenic food crop to be commercially cultivated in India.
The decision of the regulator to widen the pool of experts is a positive one because there have been several reports that the body is not a balanced and transparent one. According to a recent report in Hindustan Times, several officials who sit on India’s biotech regulator are also associated with global organisations that lobby for GM crops.
Such an arrangement represents potential conflicts of interest, according to critics, who argue that there must be an arm’s length distance between the industry and the body. Scientists who serve as regulators are mostly GM crop developers themselves, another area of conflicting roles.
Regulators linked to industry-backed non-profits or who have been privately funded GM developers said they were open about their affiliations. They denied any ethical problem because they acted in accordance with the regulator’s rules. Critics, however, say this is a serious case of a compromised regulatory framework. There was also the issue of the regulator hiding the biosafety data on GM mustard.
The GM debate is a critical issue for India’s future; whichever way the wind blows, the people should not suffer. And that will only happen when the decisions are fair, balanced and the process transparent.