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Mumbai greenlights GM field trials

Nagpur, Dec. 26: The Maharashtra government has given a slew of private companies permission to conduct field trials of genetically modified crops at state agriculture universities’ farms, rejecting its dissenting agriculture minister’s suggestion for a public debate first.

Before this, no Indian state had allowed field trials of GM crops since October last year, when a Supreme Court-appointed expert panel recommended a 10-year moratorium on such trials — though the court has not issued any directives on the recommendation.

Among the GM crops whose trials Maharashtra has permitted are transgenic rice and wheat, which have never undergone field trials in India and which are not allowed commercial cultivation anywhere in the world because of food safety concerns.

The November decision by the Prithviraj Chavan government was confirmed to The Telegraph by agriculture minister Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil, who opposed it, and the principal secretary to his department, Sudhir Kumar Goel.

The move will be welcomed by multinational agri-biotech corporations that are keen on commercially testing and releasing their transgenic crops in India despite an unresolved debate over their ecological safety.

No-objection certificates have been issued to 28 applications for GM crop trials from seven private companies and the Nagpur-based Central Institute of Cotton Research. Each field trial must take place in “confined conditions” on the farm of a state agriculture university. (See chart)

The no-objections were issued after a 10-member committee, appointed by Chavan in October 2012 and headed by former Atomic Energy Commission chairperson Anil Kakodkar, gave a case-by-case clearance following closed-door discussions.

Before they can carry out the trials, though, the applicants will need a final clearance from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), India’s apex bio-safety regulatory authority under the environment and forests ministry, headed by Veerappa Moily.

The two previous environment ministers, Jairam Ramesh and Jayanti Natarajan, had adopted a generally cautious stand on GM crops.

After the moratorium was recommended, Natarajan is said to have asked the regulatory authority to withhold approvals for field trials till the Supreme Court gave its verdict on a public interest litigation on whether India should go ahead with GM crops.

However, a senior scientist and member of the Kakodkar committee said on the condition of anonymity that the Centre couldn’t block the field trials.

“There is no direction from the Supreme Court; so neither the Centre nor the GEAC can block field trials. That’s the interpretation of most companies,” he said.

Goel said some of the applications already had GEAC clearances and were waiting only for a no-objection from the state government in whose territory the trials are to be conducted. But these GEAC clearances were obtained before the October 12 recommendation for a moratorium, and it remains unclear whether the companies will again have to seek a GEAC nod.

If all the clearances are received, the applicants may be able to start the trials during the 2014 monsoon season.

If the trials are conducted and declared successful, the GM crops will be eligible for commercial sale not just in Maharashtra but across India. Sharad Pawar’s Union agriculture ministry, which has taken a pro-GM crop stand in the apex court, will have to clear such sale but the states can ban transgenic crops within their territories.

The dissenter

Vikhe-Patil, who had publicly expressed his “grave concerns” about GM crops, was isolated in the state cabinet and even some of his own bureaucrats were openly against his stand, highly placed sources said.

They said that as a last resort, Vikhe-Patil suggested public hearings on the Kakodkar panel report but was overruled.

Vikhe-Patil told this newspaper he had reservations about the government decision but since it has been taken, he would not comment on the matter.

The Kakodkar panel, which included retired and serving agriculture scientists and bureaucrats, felt GM field trials would aid agricultural research and safeguard national food security.

But Vikhe-Patil believes the onslaught of transgenic crops will stop indigenous research in state universities, whom he accuses of being cut off from farmers and “lifting” GM research from multinationals.

The state government has not made the Kakodkar committee’s findings public but this newspaper has seen the no-objection certificate issued to the Central Institute of Cotton Research for field trials of a Bt cotton strain on the farm of the Punjabrao Deshmukh Krishi Vidyapeeth, Akola.

Institute director Keshav Kranthi was a member on the Kakodkar panel. Kakodkar was also assisted by the vice-chancellors of the state’s five agriculture universities.

The apex court-appointed expert panel had also recommended a complete ban on trials of GM crops that originated in India, such as brinjal. Among the crops cleared for trials by Maharashtra is a GM brinjal developed by Ankur Seeds.

Most of the 28 strains cleared for trials are for wheat, rice, maize and cotton. There were 32 applicants, including the Kerala-based National Rubber Research Institute, which was denied permission to carry out field trials for GM rubber. Kerala has denied permissions for GM trials.

Among the applicants was Mahyco, a leading Maharashtra-based seed company in which Monsanto has a stake. Vikhe-Patil’s department had banned Mahyco last year from selling Bt cotton seeds for alleged involvement in the black market, but the decision was later revoked.

The companies are seeking clearances mostly from Congress-ruled states since most other states have expressed strong reservations against private companies conducting GM field trials.

“The chief minister has been sitting on piles of important files but when it came to GM crops, the appointment of the Kakodkar committee was quick and the no-objections to the companies was even quicker,” a cabinet minister said on the condition of anonymity.