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6-Regulation: Autonomous regulatory authority for GM crops proposedin India

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TITLE:  Autonomous Regulatory Authority For GM Crops On Anvil
SOURCE: The Fnancial Express, India, by Ashok B Sharma
DATE:   Feb 10, 2003

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Autonomous Regulatory Authority For GM Crops On Anvil

India's draft National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) has
proposed changes in the structure of regulatory authority for genetically
modified organisms, food and crops.

The document has not said a direct 'No' to GM crops. It has respected the
frontier science by allowing fair trials and evaluations by "taking into
account long-term ecological and socio-economic studies by independent
agencies ensuring the participation of key stakeholders in decision
making and disclosure of information generated in evaluating the
biosafety". It also called for "integration of the precautionary
principle in all relevant laws and rules relating to genetically modified
organisms (GMOs) and genetically engineered produces and enhanced
facilities for detection of illegal introduction of such produces".

If the government accepts these suggestions in the this draft document,
then it would amount to a restructuring of the country's apex Genetic
Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) all the subordinate bodies. It
would also amount to some modifications in laws and rules relating to
genetically modified organisms, food and crops. However, it seems that
the Indian government is moving in this direction. The proposal for an
independent regulatory authority for GM food, crops and organisms is
under active consideration.

One of the founding fathers of the Green Revolution in the country, Dr MS
Swaminathan has expressed his views in favour of setting up of such a
regulatory authority. But Dr Swaminathan is still of the view that
regulations regarding GM food, crops and organisms in the US are much
better than that in India as the US laws are stringent in imposing heavy
financial penalty on those corporate houses which violates the safety aspects.

In the US the corporate houses are given the responsibility of assessing
and evaluating the safety aspects on their own. In this context, Dr
Swaminathan believes that the penalty aspect incorporated in the US laws
would deter companies located in that country from producing any
hazardous GM crops or produces.

Can the incorporation of any such stringent measures in India better the
process of evaluation of GM products and produces? Corporate sector in
the country engaged in development of GM crops, organisms and produces
are in favour of in-house evaluation and assessments. Are they prepared
to take up this risk?

One pertinent question remains unanswered while comparing both the US and
Indian laws. The US laws punish those for violation in that country only.
Recently there had been reported cases of the hazardous Starlink Corn
slipping into US shipments to Japan, Korea and Australia. The US
government was reported to be unaware of this situation. Sensing such a
possible occurrence the GEAC in India did not permit the import of GM
corn-soya blend by the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and CARE-India. In
the US the Starlink Corn is approved as feed and is not permitted for
human consumption. The question still remains - Can any damage done by
import of hazardous GM food from US be claimed for compensation under US laws?

The draft NBSAP fell short of dwelling in detail on the aspect of import
of hazardous GM food but has partly addressed this concern by calling for
"enhanced facilities for detection of illegal introduction of such
produces." Possibly the 'illegal introduction of such produces' means
those GM crops, food or organisms which are not yet approved by the
country's regulatory authority. The draft NBSAP is silent on labelling of
GM foods. But the involvement of all stakeholders in the regulatory
process as advocated by the draft NBSAP document would go a long way
towards smoothening the process and making it more transparent. The NGOs
in the country had been long demanding the involvement of all
stakeholders and transparency in the process. However, the draft NBSAP
document has called for promotion of traditional biotechnologies in the
country even though it has expressed some concerns about the transgenic
technology. The document called for strengthening existing community-
level crop gene banks and creating new ones with the aim of eventually
having one in every village or settlement, strengthening of existing crop
gene banks at state, agro-ecozonal and national levels and creating new
ones with the help from the National Bank for Plant Genetic Resources
(NBPGR) and other gene banks, strengthening of of existing domesticated
animal breeding centres and creating new ones with focus on threatened
breeds and integration of biodiversity into zoological parks and
botanical gardens.