The writer, chairperson of Gene Campaign, is a scientist and development activist. She can be reached at mail@genecampaign.org.

Test the mustard

Published Feb 19, 2016, 1:02 am IST
Updated Feb 19, 2016, 1:02 am IST
The GEAC asking for an RARM document is fully in line with international practice.
Representational image
 Representational image

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the body that takes the ultimate decision on genetically modified (GM) crops, has reviewed the data presented on the GM mustard hybrid DMH 11 and decided that the data is not adequate. It has asked the developer for more information, including additional biosafety tests and a risk assessment and risk management (RARM) report.

It is also to be welcomed that the GEAC has decided to proceed in a systematic manner in this case, instead of the usually ad hoc nature of its earlier responses. The committee will meet to draw up the concrete modalities of the additional data required to write up the RARM document pertaining to DMH 11.

 

This will include details like the timeline for the preparation of the report and specific roles and responsibilities. Given the embarrassing nature of the rather cut and paste review document that was prepared by science academies in the case of Bt brinjal, it is understandable that the GEAC is proceeding with caution.
Asking for overarching evaluations like an Environment Impact Assessment or a RARM document is fairly standard procedure in responsible nations testing genetically modified organisms (GMO).

The United States department of agriculture, the federal department responsible for agriculture, forestry and food, including GM food in the US, emphasises the need for environmental risk assessment as well as the Ecological Impact Assessment (EcIA) of GMOs. Another risk evaluation instrument, the Zurich Hazard Analysis, developed some 20 years ago, has been used since in a variety of sectors, including biology, to identify and manage risks from specific activities/interventions.

Incorporating a hazard analysis increases risk awareness among the operators in the specific sector and enables both the evaluation of the risk as well as assessment of its manageability. The GEAC asking for an RARM document is fully in line with international practice. In fact, an EcIA should become standard procedure in biosafety assessments of GMOs in India. This is currently not the case.

In the latest development on GM mustard, the apex regulatory body has done well to publicly take note of the specific concerns expressed by people and to make an effort to address them. This must be a first and it must be welcomed. After all, there is a body of international science which has done sound studies and pointed out, when such has been the case, the shortcomings of data generated from hasty, shoddy testing protocols.

These critiques have come from scientists of calibre who are conversant with research in the field and its methodologies. It is an indication of the validity of such critical appraisals that the defenders of GM crops, the pro-GM lobby as they are popularly called, immediately begin to trash, calling it “pseudo-science” or “parallel science”.

Actually, if you were to follow the trajectory of the pro-GM lobby and the positions they have taken on a range of GM products, the only science that counts is the science which has never, ever shown a single instance where anything wrong was found with any GMO. You are asked to believe that in all the experiments conducted on GMOs, the results were always positive, the product always proven to be safe. Is this plausible?

It is anything but a subtle approach of coming out both barrels blazing at anyone who raises a question about the safety of GM crops that should prompt questioning. Ordinary citizens who could become the consumers of GM foods should ask whether it is possible that all the scientific evidence provided by scientists who have shown that damage can be caused when animals are fed GM foods, is all wrong.

Media reports say that the national controversy and debate over GM mustard DMH 11 is taking place even though the hybrid is being developed by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP) in the Delhi University. It is curious that commentators, including the media, are emphasising that genetically engineered mustard hybrid is a Delhi University, read “national”, product, rather than an “international” one foisted on us by Monsanto or its likes.

One of the key questions relating to DMH 11 or for that matter any other GM crop is that of safety. The concerned consumer would like to know if adequate biosafety tests have been done. And do the results, which should be made available to the public, show unequivocally that the genetically manipulated mustard (or whichever other crop is being tested) is safe for the consumption of humans and animals? The source of the GM crop has little bearing on whether or not the product has been carefully tested.

A shoddy, unsafe product is as unacceptable from the Delhi University as it is from Monsanto or Syngenta. Nor does the CGMCP GM mustard become a more acceptable product just because its development was funded by another “national” organisation, the National Dairy Development Board, or that the Delhi University has committed to distributing the mustard hybrid for free. The data from tests conducted to evaluate the safety of GM mustard for the environment, for the genetic diversity of mustard and for human and animal health must establish clearly that the product is safe.

Millions of dollars are being spent by the pro-GM lobby on bullying, hectoring, intimidating and compromising scientists and government regulators in different countries that are questioning the relevance and safety of GM foods. In this backdrop, the GEAC must be congratulated for taking seriously the cogently articulated concerns of state governments (Bihar and Madhya Pradesh) scientists, farmers, including those affiliated with the ruling party (the Bharatiya Kissan Sangh and the BJP Kisan Morcha) and concerned citizens and consumers. It is hoped that the GEAC stays the course and continues to do the right thing.

 

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