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Panchayats Can Deny Permission For Field Trials Of GM crops

By Kavitha Kuruganti

21 June, 2007

Genetically Modified (GM) or Genetically Engineered (GE) crops are trying to make their way into India across more than thirteen important crops. One such genetically modified crop – Bt Cotton – has already been allowed into the country.

The issue of GE crops is highly controversial and there is much evidence present about the adverse effects of GE crops on farming and other eco-systems, in addition to potential impacts on human health too, from across the world. The hasty thrusting of GM crops on Indian farmers, especially in the context of safer and affordable alternatives being practiced by thousands of farmers, raises questions about the need for such crops in the first instance.

Genetic Engineering is a process by which foreign genes from other living organisms are randomly inserted into the genome of a host organism (any plant or animal that the promoter wants to modify for some reason or the other, with profiteering through larger and larger markets being the common reason) with unpredictable and potentially hazardous results. Very often, only the expected benefits are hyped up and the potential problems glossed over without any sound assessment. This could lead to disastrous consequences for all life on this planet.

It is in this context that many groups are pressing for a sound and rational policy related to GM crops in the country, to get the government to assess the very need for GM crops in a country like India, with its own agro-ecological and socio-cultural conditions related to farming.

Last year, field trials of GM crops have been permitted in hundreds of locations in the country including on GM food crops of rice, brinjal, bhindi, tomato, maize, sorghum, castor, groundnut, cabbage, cauliflower, potato and mustard. In various investigations, it was revealed that when the companies developing the crop lease in land from farmers to conduct their field trials, they do not inform the farmer that they are going to try out a genetically modified crop in his/her field. The neighbors are not told and the panchayat is very often not informed. In most cases, even the state government is not told by the crop developers that they are testing out a potentially unsafe product in open air conditions in the state as field trials of the crop.

Understanding the negative potential of such serious lack of monitoring systems and the reality of crop developers misusing the conditions being imposed on them for conducting field trials, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) - which is the apex regulatory body for looking into GM crop research and development in the country – brought in a new condition (in its meeting on 13/12/2006) for any GM crop field trials to be conducted in India from this year onwards. As per this, Panchayats have to give prior permission for such a trial to take place in their jurisdiction before the GEAC considers any application. This is also in conformity with the constitutional rights bestowed on Panchayats with regard to their natural resources.

Panchayats have to make good use of this authority that they enjoy now.

When any crop developer walks upto any panchayat for permission for a GM crop field trial, the Gram Sabha should be convened and a comprehensive debate organized about the potential risks of allowing the trial. People who have information on the subject could be called to the meeting, if needed. The decision to allow or disallow should be an informed decision taken in consultation with the gram panchayat.

The Panchayat should also ask the regulators (Chairperson, Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, Ministry of Environment & Forests, Paryavaran Bhawan, CGO Complex, Lodhi Road, New Delhi 110 003) for a full list of potential risks to watch out for, for all the conditions imposed on the company while conducting the trial so that compliance can be monitored and so on. The Panchayat should also get full information on liability mechanisms in case there are violations observed in the trial. Further, such liability mechanisms should also ensure that the trial farmer and his/her neighbors' interests are fully protected.
The Supreme Court orders in a Public Interest Litigation related to GE crops also insist on a designated scientist to be present for each such trial taking place who will be responsible for the trial, that there should be a minimum isolation distance of at least 200 meters from the field trials to the neighboring fields of same crop and that there should be a testing protocol for contamination from an approved institution to detect and ensure that there is no contamination from the field trial.

If there are any trials of any new seed varieties happening in your village, inform the Panchayat immediately. If the Panchayat has not given permission to such a trial, it could summon the person/company conducting the trial and ask for full details of what is being tried out, in writing. If there is a GM crop being tried out, the GEAC should be immediately alerted about the fact that the trial is happening without the permission of the Panchayat.
At a time when a majority of countries in the world have not allowed GE crop cultivation for a variety of reasons and concerns, Panchayats in India have to be vigilant towards such trials and have to utilise their authority in this matter in an informed and democratic manner after carefully understanding all the implications.

Kavitha Kuruganti
Centre for Sustainable Agriculture
12-13-445, Street # 1, Tarnaka
Secunderabad 500 017;


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