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Moily approves GM field trials

New Delhi, Feb. 27: Union environment and forests minister Veerappa Moily has approved field trials of genetically-modified (GM) crops recommended by a panel of experts last year but widely believed to have been put on hold by his predecessor Jayanthi Natarajan.

Moily announced today that he had approved the recommendations of the environment ministry’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) that had been kept in abeyance since the panel’s last meeting in March 2013.

The GEAC, after examining sets of research dossiers on various crops, had approved field trials of GM versions of rice, wheat, maize and castor. “As minister, I have no business to hold it back, as a law-abiding minister, I have to approve it,” Moily told reporters today.

Sections of scientists and the industry have hailed Moily’s decision, saying it would allow biotechnology companies to continue with research on GM crops that had virtually been stalled in the absence of field trials.

“We’re very happy,” said Ram Kaundinya, chairman of the Association of Biotechnology-Led Enterprises (ABLE), agricultural division. “We had met the minister (Moily) about three weeks back, and had urged that the field trials should be approved.”

Field trials, he said, are part of the research process that is important to collect new data to take decisions on GM crops. Since the March 2013 meeting, Kaundinya told The Telegraph, the ABLE had tried several times to meet Natarajan, but didn’t get an appointment.

But a network of anti-GM groups has decried the decision, calling it “unscientific” and “reeking of vested interests”. The Coalition for a GM Free India has pointed out that a technical expert committee (TEC) that had been appointed by the Supreme Court had recommended a moratorium on field trials of GM crops until India had improved its regulatory system that oversees GM crops.

With Moily’s approval, environment ministry officials said, the field trials of the GM crops could be carried out if the agencies or companies receive approval from state governments for GM crop trials and if they follow the conditions prescribed by the GEAC for the trials.

Four years ago, former environment minister Jairam Ramesh had, after consultations with sections of scientists and industry, imposed a moratorium on the cultivation of GM brinjal, even though the GEAC had recommended the crop for cultivation.

“These are two different matters — that (GEAC recommendation) related to mass commercial cultivation, this one is for field trials,” said V. Rajagopalan, environment and forests secretary. Moily said there is “no conflict” with Jairam’s decision (on GM brinjal).

The Supreme Court had set up the TEC as part of a response to a public interest litigation seeking to block open release of GM crops into the environment and an improvement in India’s regulatory system for biotechnology.

The TEC had recommended a hold on field trials until a strong regulatory system had been put in place. But, a senior environment official said today that India’s existing regulatory system is “in tune with international guidelines”.

“The TEC itself had a divided opinion — five scientists against one scientist,” the official said. “We’re taking into account both opinions.” In the ongoing court case, the environment and forest ministry, the agricultural ministry and the department of biotechnology are expected to respond to the court through a joint affidavit.