'My mandate is to experiment, not policy,' S&T Minister on GM crops

ST MinisterNew Delhi (ISJ) ? India?s junior Science and Technology Minister Dr. Jitender Singh on Tuesday (Sept 02), washed off his hands over the impasse on genetically modified (GM) crops. Department of Biotechnology, under his belt is responsible for research in the field, and advice the government on the efficacy or otherwise of genetically modified crops, but some NGOs, political leaders and environmentalists have been opposing its introduction, terming it as a health and environmental hazard.

"My purview is to experiment, not to make the policy. That purview lies with another Ministry," Dr. Singh skirted the controversy. "On implementation of the policy, we are not actually in the loop," added the minister.

Narendra Modi government had put on hold a decision by the earlier UPA government to allow field trails of 13 genetically modified or GM crops, including rice, brinjal, chickpea, mustard and cotton. The decision to keep the trials was taken after some voluntary agencies affiliated to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) took exception to the decision. Their objections were primarily that Supreme Court is seized of the issue of introduction of GM crops, there is no regulatory mechanism in place and there is no certification system for GM seeds.

The 2014 Poll Manifesto of Bhartiya Janta Party had also opposed to allowing genetically (GM) foods ?without full scientific evaluation on its long-term effects on soil, production and biological impact on consumers.?

The issue is also pending before the Supreme Court of India, which is hearing a public interest litigation filed by a group of non-governmental organisations calling for a moratorium on biotech crops until new regulations for plant biotechnology are established.

The Science and Technology Minister however, said he has 'no opinion on the issue and we would not also exceed our brief'. "Allow me to answer scientifically, rather than politically."

The scientific community is also divided on the issue. Chairman of National Innovation Council Sam Pitroda had advised Indian political leaders to evolve an understanding of science and future and said the opposition to GM Crops is a 'false debate and fear of something'.

Nobel Laureate Cell Biologist Sir Paul Nurse, during an interview to Indian Science Journal last year, termed the campaign against GM foods as 'irresponsible'. He termed the whole debate by people who have never been hungry is to 'make people hungry elsewhere in the world'.

Five scientists recently wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi opposing to open release of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). They claimed, there is growing scientific evidence for the adverse impact of GMOs on human health and environment. The scientists include Dr. P.M. Bhargava, former Member of National Knowledge Commission and Dr. V.S. Vijayan, former Chairman of Kerala State Biodiversity Board.

India has allowed cultivation of BT cotton in 2002, but some 70 applications for GM field trials are pending before the Genetic Evaluation Appraisal Committee (GEAC), a statutory body under the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

The production of cotton in India had a quantum jump after the introduction of BT cotton ? from 13.7 million bales (one bale is 170 kg) in 2002-03 to 36.5 million bales in 2013-14.

- NB Nair

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