Courting a GM crisis
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The case in the Supreme Court must be a wake-up call for the Centre
With the Supreme Court scheduled to take up a report proposing a ban on field trials of genetically modified (GM) food crops, India's quest for food security hangs in the balance. Hearing a petition against GM crops, the court had appointed a technical expert committee. Its report is in, and its findings make for a chilling read. Should the committee's opinions be allowed to prevail, field trials of GM food crops will be barred — therefore putting the benefits of scientific research available elsewhere out of the reach of Indian farmers. But coming as it does soon after a parliamentary standing committee that opposes the uses of genetic engineering in agriculture, it is time that the government urgently made its thinking clear to the people: what are the criteria on which India will facilitate the aspirations of its people, on the basis of reason or on woolly populism?
So far, we have only had lonely voices from the agriculture ministry and the prime minister's Scientific Advisory Committee in support of reason and science. There has been no considered, collective political ownership of the debate by the government — and in failing to articulate the issue thoughtfully, the states have mostly been as evasive as the Centre. Ever since the then environment minister obstructed commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal in February 2010 by airily waving aside the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee's clearance, the fate of GM crops has been cast at the mercy of ideological, and not scientific, considerations. It needs to be emphasised that the release for field trials and then for wider cultivation must proceed with abundant caution. But the manner in which an established approval regime was undermined in the Bt brinjal case and the subsequent failure to mobilise Parliament to secure the regulatory mechanism have meant that motivated activists and populists have taken control of the debate to their advantage. It has allowed them to cite the need for stricter regulation purely as a means to obstruct GM research.
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