Having dealt with the fundamentals of GMOs in our previous issues, now it’s inevitable to focus on the regulatory bodies managing the research, safety and commercialization of GMOs.
As described in our earlier articles, the research involving in genetic manipulation is strictly coordinated at various levels in India. At the university level, any researcher willing to generate a genetically engineered organism is bound to seek approval from the university GM approval committee, chaired by experts of various research backgrounds. Following it, the reports from the above committee is further analyzed by the national level GEAC (Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee) and only if the proposal gets a green signal, the research shall be implemented.
Further, the commercialization of genetically engineered plants in India undergoes a stringent regulatory process coordinated by GEAC. Starting from acute and chronic feeding studies on rats to field trials, approval for commercialization demands voluminous data which emphasizes on safety. Further, only when substantial equivalence (i.e. the GMO must be exactly similar to that of the corresponding wild type non-engineered plant) except for the trait of interest. For instance, the only difference between genetically engineered insect resistant cotton and non-engineered cotton must be tolerance of the former to insects and the susceptibility of the later to the same) is proved, the particular GM event will be considered for commercialization.
Farmers hunger for GM technology !!!
It has been in the top news for the past six months as unapproved herbicide tolerant (HT) hybrid cotton seeds are cultivated by Indian cotton farmers. According to South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC), Delhi based non-profit organization, about 34.9 lakh packets of HT cotton hybrid seeds were sold across India’s seven popular cotton growing states. It is Monsanto’s Bollgard II Roundup Ready Flex (BGIIRRF) proprietary GM cotton event expressing both Bt insect-resistance and glyphosate herbicide-tolerance traits. This GM cotton event is already under cultivation in countries like USA, Brazil, Australia, etc. It also been reported that farmers pay Rs. 300-600 extra over the actual cost for each packet of these seeds to illegal sellers compared to Rs.800 for the ‘approved Bt cotton hybrids’. This illegal market shows the failure of the country’s central and state government’s regulatory authorities. But it is unclear about the unknown players behind this grey market who benefited already for the worth over Rs 450 crore. As it is the proprietary product of Monsanto, the company ultimately suffered a huge loss owing to this piracy. Such incidents will discourage several seed ventures to invest not only on GM technology but also on other biotech solutions citing country’s regulatory uncertainties and ambiguities in intellectual property protection.
Even though such incidents should be prevented from occurring in the future; it is an ultimate eye-opener for GMO regulatory bodies and NGO’s in the country where about 9 lakh Indian farmers were involved in the cultivation of such ‘‘unapproved GM cotton’’ crop. This shows their deliberate need for the technology to minimize the cost of crop production and increase their farm income. For a labor-intensive weeding purpose, farmers need to spend about Rs. 6000 per acre of cotton crop. This would be the major reason for the farmers to opt for such GM cotton hybrid (as they can spray herbicide which kills only the weeds) even though they are not approved for commercial cultivation. It is illegal but their real need has been understood!!
A Lesson for the Indian Government?
Indian government should learn from this scenario and act quickly to process the pending beneficial GM products like HT mustard, Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation before it enters farmers’ field illegally. Such regulatory flaws will further heighten the fear of general public or consumers on GM crops. After the commercialization of Bt cotton (BGI) in 2002 in India under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, neither UPA nor the current NDA government had a clear stand on commercialization of other GM crops (except BGII in 2006). As several oppositions arose from unaware NGO’s and public; government’s fear of losing votes during elections prevented them from taking a concrete decision on the release of new GM crops. Because of this, decades long research efforts of many scientists and students of several public institutions haven’t witnessed the fruits of their hard work. So, it the duty of the regulatory bodies to understand the need for GM science and to create awareness among public. Moreover, the farmers should be well educated and regularly monitored on the safe use of GM technology to prevent them from illegal use GM seeds. We would say GM crops are not only the solution but it is a savior technology at a critical situation where there are no other better options. As we are facing tremendous challenges in our agriculture and food security, it is the right time for the government to take wise decision on this issue. So it becomes necessity to support science based smart farming!!!
(Authors: Nandhakumar Shanmugaraj, MSc. Biotechnology; Godwin James, MSc. Biotechnology; Ramsankar, MSc. Biotechnology; Veera Ranjani Rajagopalan, PhD. Biotechnology; Ragavendran Abbai, MS Biotechnology )