Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh’s decision to impose an open-ended moratorium on the commercial introduction of privately developed Bt brinjal shows once again that politics and civil society pressure, and not science, can often become the guiding lights of decision-making in this country. In the process, Mr Ramesh also missed a golden chance of devising a stable and sound policy on genetically modified (GM) crops. While announcing the moratorium on Mahyco’s Bt brinjal variety, Mr Ramesh argued that fresh ‘independent’ tests need to be done because in this case it was the company who did the majority of the tests and they were insufficient. In other words, he admitted that the existing regulatory process was faulty.
If that was the case, there are certain questions that must be answered before any new regulatory processes are set up: how was it passed by the government’s own Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), now called the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee? And if the experts on the body had failed to take an impartial and independent view, then they must be asked to explain this lapse. By not answering these questions and only harping on independent tests and new bodies, the government will end up duplicating its efforts and not answering the main question that is so central to the debate: are GM crops safe or not? Undermining a body set up by the government and its processes will not improve our confidence in regulatory authorities. Also just a change of nomenclature is not enough.
The minister also talked about public sector participation in the biotechnology sector. A good thought, but won’t they use the same GM technology that has become so controversial? There are many Indian private companies who are developing GM seeds. But since most of them don’t have deep pockets like a Monsanto, one wonders whether they will be eager to invest and put up a stiff competition to MNCs in the absence of clear-cut guidelines and policy on GM crops. The minister says that seed development is as important as space development. Rightly so, but what is our network of state-funded agricultural institutes doing? Why is their research, GM or otherwise, not reaching the fields? There are ways and means of improving our agriculture sector — one, but not necessarily the silver bullet — could be the GM technology. To get the best possible result for our farmers, the decisions should be grounded in science and not in emotion and rhetoric.