As the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, farmers continue to fight decades-old unresolved battles. June 2020 marks the third year of the farmers’ ‘civil disobedience movement’ that demands the right to sow Genetically Modified or GM seeds. Sowing unapproved seeds in protest, farmers risk a jail term of 5 years and a penalty of Rs 1 lakh.
The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee — a 23-member committee composed of scientists and government officials — had first approved GM food crop Bt brinjal in 2009 after a nine-year-long trial. However, the Minister of Environment and Forests (MoEF), based on public consultations, imposed a moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal. It has been a decade since and we are still in a regulatory log jam.
GM seeds are altered in labs to introduce desirable traits such as an increase in yield, improved nutritional content, or increased tolerance for conditions that trouble farmers such as insects, plant diseases, or droughts.
Gene modification is not a new concept. Farmers have engaged in gene modification since time immemorial, by adopting different breeding methods such as bridge-cross and pollination.
What is the noise all about then?
The GM seeds problem can be framed in multiple ways. Proponents of it highlight its benefits on crop yield, farmer income, and food security. Opponents raise concerns over environmental protection, contamination of non-GM crops, and economic impact on organic farmers. Whether we should use GM seeds or not is a divisive question that activists from across the spectrum have weighed in on — some argue for depoliticisation of government decision-making, some for farmer freedom to use technology, and others push for environmental protection and organic farming. Reframing this policy problem as one that takes away farmers’ freedoms, in light of a loose application of the precautionary principle, may help us focus on the process instead of the outcome.
Time and again, we have seen that complete bans, or indefinite moratoria, only kick the ball down the road. They also tend to generate perverse incentives and unintended consequences. The last three years of farmer agitations have shown us that irrespective of the position one could take, we still need a rule of law mechanism to help us decide national policy.
Perhaps, one way of resolving this impasse is to develop a regulatory framework that can sift through the scientific, economic, cultural, and ecological issues associated with GM seeds, without returning to a comfortable pre-GM naivety.
Need for a new regulatory framework
The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), established under MoEF, is the apex body that approves GM seeds for field trials and release into the environment. Once GEAC clears seeds for use, the government will allow its use. Despite this compact, MoEF has chosen to repeatedly abandon rule of law and favour ad-hoc policymaking instead.
GEAC, first established in 1990 and reconstituted every three years since, draws its powers not through a legislative act, but an administrative order issued by the MoEF. Two of its top three positions are occupied by the Additional Secretary and Joint Secretary of MoEF, creating space for political manipulation of regulatory decisions.
Under the Environmental Protection Act Rules 1989, issued by MoEF, GEAC was assigned powers to approve the release of genetically engineered organisms. But in 2009, after declaring Bt brinjal fit for release, it asked MoEF to take a “final view” as the subject was perceived to be of national importance. From here, followed political interference in matters that should be driven by scientific evidence and procedural fidelity. Despite the go-ahead from GEAC in October 2009, the ministry issued an “indefinite moratorium” on the release of Bt brinjal in February 2010.
Mysteriously, through a notification in July 2010, the environment ministry changed the name of the committee from Genetic Engineering “Approval” Committee to Genetic Engineering “Appraisal” Committee.
In July 2011, MoEF made GEAC introduce a No Objection Letter (NOC) requirement from states before conducting any trials. Why did state approval before trials become necessary after 14 years of trials from 1997 to 2011? This requirement adds another layer of complexity for firms to cross over, deterring tests and development of technology. It turns out that even after GEAC’s approval, states have declined to issue NOCs. The moot question is on what basis do states accept or reject an applicant’s plea to conduct trials? It certainly does not appear to be based on evidence.
In the same vein, in 2017, GEAC approved GM mustard but eventually withdrew it by stating: “Subsequent to receipt of various representations from different stakeholders, matters related to environmental release of transgenic mustard are kept pending for further review.”
Impact on stakeholders
As a result of the government’s indecisiveness, GM technology developers have been side-lined as well. The approval for the transgenic mustard, developed by Deepak Pental, who invented GM mustard in India, has come to a standstill. DHM-11 got clearance from the GEAC in 2017, but then environment minister, Dr Harsh Vardhan sent it back to GEAC for reconsideration. GEAC ordered Pental to undertake more field tests. “We will be happy to do the trials, but the permissions come so late… We are asked to go to the states (to get permission for trials) when (the) GEAC should be doing it. The technology developer is the most abused person in the current system,” said Pental in a LiveMint article.
In the absence of rigorous field trials, systematic appraisal of evidence, and dissemination of credible information, farmers rely on anecdotal data to choose seeds from an ever-increasing variety. Laws that penalise farmers for community exchange and use of select seeds can hardly ever be effective. The choice of seed should not be a matter of civil disobedience, but a business decision based on reliable information and regulatory clarity.
There have been some efforts to create a regulator and a single-window system for approvals. The Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill, 2013 envisages establishment of an independent authority — the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) — for the regulation of organisms and products of modern biotechnology.
However, the bill was met with strong opposition by anti-GMO activists presenting it as attempts to lower the bar for approvals. To have an independent regulator is not inherently a pro or anti-GM move, but rather a call for a coherent, predictable, and transparent framework that can rise above the current whirling, high-pitched debate.
The authors are researchers at Centre for Civil Society. Views are personal.