The Telegraph
Wednesday , June 4 , 2014
 
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PEST CONTROL

When a few pesky fruit flies tried to migrate from India, they ended up sparking a debate on the effectiveness of India’s agricultural biosecurity laws and regulations. While some agriculture experts believe the laws are working well, others say they are way out of tune with the times.

It started with the European Union (EU) banning the import of Indian mangoes — including the mighty Alphonso — when some shipments were found to be contaminated with fruit flies. The EU feared the pests would wreck havoc on its tomato and cucumber crops.

As a result of the ban, while Indian consumers are feasting on the export-rejected Alphonsos being sold locally at rock-bottom prices, agricultural experts are debating whether India also requires similarly stringent biosecurity regulations. “Our national preparedness in the area of biosecurity is currently an issue of widespread debate. It first started with the detection of the H5N1 strain of avian influenza virus in Maharashtra and Gujarat,” says M.S. Swaminathan, founder, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai.

Agricultural biosecurity laws deal with regulating and quarantining the inflow and outflow of plant species and animal organisms that are not native to a country, in order to check the outbreak of diseases and also crop loss.

Over the years, a number of plant, animal and marine diseases and pests have found their way into India through the import of seeds, planting material, livestock and livestock products. “Many weeds like parthenium or Congress grass, Phalaris minor and Lantana camara have got established in the country and continue to cause huge loss,” says G.V. Ramanjaneyulu, executive director, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), Secunderabad.

The primary reason for this, Ramanjaneyulu believes, is the lack of concrete legislation on agricultural biosecurity in India. The current quarantine guidelines for the agriculture sector are listed in two acts — the Livestock Importation Act, 1898, and the Destructive Insects and Pests Act, 1914. “Both acts are archaic and don’t outline measures to tackle modern day biosecurity issues,” he says.

Rapid advances in genetic engineering, on the other hand, have led to an increased risk of exotic pests and weeds finding their way into the country. “What we need are policies and technological capabilities to respond to biosecurity threats, an efficient screening system and strict vigilance at all borders,” he says.

Also, climate change has enabled pests to alter their habitats and new pests to be introduced. “The spread of trans-boundary diseases like the avian influenza and the Ug99 wheat stem rust fungus pose new threats to agricultural safety,” believes Ramanjaneyulu.

The huge boom in domestic research and the development of genetically modified (GM) food too have made India’s agricultural biosecurity regulations loophole-ridden. “The existing laws only talk about quarantining imports. What about homegrown GM crops? There are no regulations for screening the effects of local genetic research in agriculture,” says Ramanjaneyulu.

Many of the issues raised by Ramanjaneyulu were addressed in the Agricultural Biosecurity Bill introduced in Parliament last year. But post elections, with the Lower House dissolved, the bill has lapsed.

The bill had proposed setting up a centralised Agricultural Biosecurity Authority of India (ABAI) to protect plants, animals and related products from imported pests and diseases. The ABAI was supposed to regulate the import and export of plants and animals, conduct surveillance of pests and diseases and undertake pest risk analysis. “However, the bill did not talk about regulating biosecurity threats arising from within the country,” rues the CSA director.

Ramanjaneyulu’s views are, however, at one end of the spectrum. Another school of experts believes India’s current agricultural regulations are up to the mark, and that legislation alone cannot check the spread of biosecurity hazards. “Look at the United Kingdom — it produced the mad cow disease despite exhaustive biosecurity laws,” says P. Chengal Reddy, secretary general, Consortium of Indian Farmers Association (CIFA).

Reddy feels that it is impossible for any country to lay down foolproof biosecurity regulations. And he believes India’s current agricultural legislation and regulatory mechanisms are holistic and follow an effective evaluation system in checking dangerous plants and organisms from entering the country.

Instead, Reddy believes the government needs to focus on upgrading India’s research capabilities in genetic technology for the agriculture sector. “In the US, China, Brazil and Australia, agricultural production costs are 50 per cent less than what they are in India because of cutting-edge work in the field of genetic technologies. We need to focus on getting on a par in order to stay relevant in the international markets,” he says.

Unlike Reddy and Ramanjaneyulu, Hemant Goswami, a social activist with the Kheti Virasat Mission, an organic farming movement in Punjab, believes Indian lawmakers need to take the middle path while drawing biosecurity regulations — that is, strengthen the current laws but not vest complete power in a centralised body like the ABAI.

Section 7 of the Indian Constitution declares agriculture to be a state subject. “If the Agricultural Biosecurity Bill is passed, it will go against the letter of the Constitution. It will take away the independence of state governments and provide an easy, single-window access for genetically modified foods and organisms to come into the country,” warns Goswami.

The way to ensure effective biosecurity, according to Goswami, is to strengthen the current legislation and seal borders effectively. “The government needs to focus on implementing the law more seriously — and not on making new ones,” he says.

The fruit fly has, clearly, opened a can of worms for India’s largest employment generating sector.