doi:10.1038/nindia.2014.14 Published online 31 January 2014

The legal battle over field trials of GM crops

Shashi Kumar, Raj K. Bhatnagar, Keshab R. Kranthi, Swapan K. Datta

India is facing a deadlock over the approval of field trials of new genetically modified (GM) crops. The impasse stems from the delay in decision over the matter by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) under India's Ministry of Forests and Environment (MoEF).

In 2005, anti-GMO activists filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court of India seeking moratorium on the release of any genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment pending comprehensive, transparent and rigorous bio-safety test protocols. The move, pro-biotech scientists feel, has put on hold opportunities to improve agricultural production through genetic engineering approaches initiated by the Indian government to feed its booming population. As a result, some important GM crops such as Bt-Brinjal, barstar-barnase, hybrid mustard and golden rice are awaiting clearance for field trials.

The history

Bt cotton is the only GM crop allowed for commercial production in India. The fate of other new GM crops is pending in the Supreme Court following a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) on environmental release of such crops.

The Apex Court set up a Technical Expert Committee (TEC) of five scientists from the fields of molecular biology, toxicology, nutrition science, biodiversity and agriculture science to review GMO related concerns. Later, a sixth member — R. S. Paroda, former Director General of Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) — was also inducted in the TEC, when agriculture scientists pleaded that their views also be represented. The TEC submitted an interim report to the Supreme Court in October 2012 recommending an indefinite moratorium for the next 10 years on field trials of GM crops and complete ban on the commercial release of GM crops. However, Paroda was not part of this report.

The TEC submitted a final report in July 2013 with Paroda alleging that it was submitted without his consent and was "neither transparent nor objective" in terms of guidelines. Pardoa on his own submitted a confidential report to the Supreme Court recommending that field trials of GM crops be continued. His confidential report was made public on the directive of Supreme Court. The next hearing of the newly appointed TEC is scheduled in the Supreme Court on April 15, 2014.

A decade ago, cotton was a failure crop due to heavy insect-pest infestation that forced many farmers to commit suicide1.. In 2002, Bt-cotton was introduced in the Gujarat province without the approval of government agencies2. Soon it was popular among farmers due to greater benefits like 24% reduction in chemical pesticide applications, and increased crop yield about 31%3. According to Cotton Corporation of India Ltd, nearly 90% of the cotton cultivation area is under BT Cotton, making India the second largest cotton producer in the world. There were reports that because of Bt cotton, pesticide applications reduced to 50%, and several million cases of acute pesticide poisoning among cotton growers have also reduced drastically4.

About 75% of pesticides used in India are insecticides, which create serious risks to human beings, animals and environment due to inadequate regulatory control involving sales and distribution of highly toxic pesticides. Recently 18 organophosphate pesticides were documented in common vegetables collected from markets with the maximum pesticide concentration noticed in brinjal5. However, the field trial of Bt-brinjal, genetically engineered to reduce the pesticide consumption by controlling the major infestation due to fruit and shoot borer larvae, has been put on hold.

India is the largest importer of edible oil in the world — around 50% of its domestic consumption is imported6. To reduce dependence on oil imports, a genetically modified hybrid mustard DMH-11, producing higher oil-yield, was developed at the Delhi University. The field trials of mustard DMH-11 are awaited since March 2012.

Golden rice was genetically engineered to provide a supplement for pro-vitamin-A that could substantially reduce blindness due to vitamin-A deficiency in India, which has the greatest percentage of Vitamin A deficient (VAD) children in the world7. Field evaluation of transgenic rice with high iron/zinc is yet to see the light of the day. Several indigenous transgenic lines of crops such as cauliflower, cabbage, chickpea, groundnut, maize, okra, pigeonpea, potato, tomato and sorghum with insect resistance/agronomic traits are also waiting to be tested in fields. (More on the who's who of GM research in India: Table 1)

GM battles and concerns

The legal battle for the field trials of GM crops in India is very similar to the GM herbicide-tolerant sugar beet in the USA8, which was approved in 2005 by USDA for outdoor cultivation but banned in 2010 by a Californian district court due to lawsuits by various NGOs. Later, in June 2012, USDA again deregulated it for commercial production.

The deregulation decision of the USDA has also propelled the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to explore science-based opinion for cultivating the GMHT sugar beet in the European Union9.

The development of αAI transgenic peas was banned in Australia since 2005 when a risk assessment conducted by the CSIRO and Australian National University reported the negative reactions in mice due to transgenic peas. Recently it was reported that αAI transgenic peas are not more allergenic than beans or non-transgenic peas in mice10.

Bt rice may be the first commercially released staple food crop in Asia. In a 3-year field study on Bt rice, it was concluded that artificial wounding in roots did not enhance the release of Cry1Ab/1Ac protein into soil and water. Bt protein does not move into adjacent paddy fields along with irrigation water and does not persist in the soil for more than two months11.

In Canada, about 80% canola oil is produced using the barstar-barnase transgene hybrids, which have been deregulated in Europe, as they are not found to be harmful to animals and human beings. The University of Delhi also used a similar technology to produce hybrid DMH-11 in Brassica juncea. The DMH-11 outdoor cultivation should not pose any fear of outcrossing as its wild relatives are not present in India. Golden Rice can be boiled, steamed or even fried in many different ways, only about 10% loss of pro-vitamin-A was observed during the cooking of GM rice12. Rice is a self-pollinating crop and should not pose any outcross threat to other crops. Thus, cultivation of golden rice may be useful for India with the highest number of vitamin A deficient children in the world.

Implications on food security

Recently, India passed the 'Food Security Bill' to ensure that no one sleeps hungry. The bill to make 'food' a legal right may cost about 1.3 trillion rupees ($23.9bn) per year. This gigantic challenge can't be achieved without improving our existing crops that provide lesser yields due to damage caused by insect-pests and diseases.

According to the latest report of UN's food and agriculture body FAO, India lags behind in the world average yield of crops. In addition, agriculture sector is facing the problem of climate change, shrinking cultivation land, water resources and deterioration of soil quality. Therefore, to fulfill the outgrowing population, government is encouraging plant biotechnologists to generate better crops with pest resistance, enhanced nutrition and higher yields.

The government recently introduced a new BRAI Bill 2013 in Parliament that will allow Indian scientists to conduct GM research without any interference. However, this Bill is pending with the Parliamentary Standing Committee.

Several Indian and international companies like Monsanto Holdings Private Ltd, Bayer Bioscience Pvt Ltd, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co Ltd (Mayhco), Syngenta Biosciences Pvt Ltd, BASF and public funded institutions such as the Central Institute of Cotton Research, Nagpur, Directorate of Oilseed Research, Hyderabad and Directorate of Rice Research Hyderabad are waiting to conduct field trials for event selection of certain GM varieties of cotton, maize, rice, wheat and castor.

The trials are to be conducted in designated farms of University of Agriculture Sciences in various states. The clearances are put on hold keeping in mind the ongoing case in the Supreme Court challenging the existing regulatory mechanism for GM crops in the country. It is hoped that the logjam on GM crops in India will be over soon as technological change is an ongoing natural process that may be difficult to keep on hold for long if poverty and hunger have to be fought head-on.

[The views expressed in this commentary are that of the authors'. 

Author affiliations: Shashi Kumar & Raj K. Bhatnagar are from the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, New Delhi; Keshab R. Kranthi from Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur, Maharashtra and Swapan K. Datta from Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Division of Crop Science, New Delhi, India.]


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