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GM = government modified

India's GM crop regulators Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation Genetic Engineering Approval Committee

india Updated: Jan 22, 2006 23:40 IST

GM crops can do more than just improve yield. One variety of rice approved for field trials in India this year ­ its developers have dubbed it the Golden Rice ­ will ensure that a typical daily serving of around 200 grams should provide the minimum dose of Vitamin A necessary to prevent vitamin deficiency.

Scientists from 10 countries working on the International Rice Genome Sequencing Project have announced a breakthrough in deciphering the genetic code of rice. Identifying genes associated with traits will speed the transfer of beneficial traits into locally adapted elite lines, and permit plant breeders to search for useful genetic variants to help produce higher yield and improve nutritional content. A variety of GM potatoes being tested in India can ensure that starch is not all that you get from potatoes but a much higher content of proteins, too.

Clearly the full potential of genetically modified crops is yet to be realised. For instance, drought-resistant varieties of crops that can withstand a failed monsoon and high soil stress are often talked about though research institutions are yet to get around to developing one. Certainly for something as revolutionary as being able to, say transfer an elephant's genes into corn, there are inherent technology risks involved: from the possibility that GM crops could impact biodiversity to developing products that could spark off unknown reactions because of their introduction into the food chain.

But to seek a ban on technology ­ as anti-GM groups do­ would lead India to miss the opportunity to benefit from useful and safe products. Some believe that it is the near monopoly that MNCs have had that often provokes sentiments against the technology itself. That MNCs are often projected or perceived as greedy unscrupulous firms Monsanto has been fined in Indonesia on bribery charges to expedite release of its products ­ has not helped.

There certainly has been some discomfort in India, too, at the company "over-charging" for Bt Cotton seeds. But this could be a short-term advantage. Competition ­ especially when public sector research institutes complete their trials and the private sector introduces their own set of products ­ should be able to take care of pricing.

The existing regulatory system also would need to share some of the blame for the opposition. The regulatory system conceived by the over-secretive bureaucracy has been seen as far too opaque in its decision-making and monitoring processes despite some recent efforts to change this impression. Take for instance, demands from environmental groups to access the data that formed the basis of the GEAC's decision to allow Bt Cotton. Or the monitoring reports that it receives on the performance of GM crops. There is no reason why anyone should have to wait for the Right to Information Act to come into force before they put this information in public domain and let independent groups scrutinise their decisions. Keeping information under wraps invites suspicion that GM crops can do without.

First Published: Nov 16, 2005 19:37 IST