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GM trials in India threaten trade ties

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Courtesy of Down to Earth

Times of India | 13 Feb 2008

GM trials in India threaten trade ties

Manoj Mitta,TNN

NEW DELHI: India finds itself increasingly on the defensive in agricultural trade for permitting field trials across the country in a host of genetically modified (GM) food crops — rice, brinjal, okra, potato, tomato and groundnuts — and thereby exposing conventional crops to the risk of transgenic contamination.

A case in point is a rather dodgy no-contamination certificate that the regulator, Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), was forced to give two months ago in response to a restriction imposed by Russia on import of rice, groundnuts and sesame seeds from India.

Apprehending transgenic contamination, Russia had insisted on a written confirmation from the government that "no GM crops in rice, groundnuts and sesame seeds exist in India".

This put GEAC in a fix since extensive GM field trials are admittedly going on in two of the three specified items, namely, rice and groundnuts. So, GEAC qualified its reply by saying that no GM crops of those three food items exist "in commercial production" in India.

It remains to be seen whether Russia would be taken in by GEAC’s certificate, which is misleading as the ongoing GM field trials in rice and groundnuts are meant to be a prelude to commercial production.

Even otherwise, field trials too are fraught with the risk of leading to GM contamination of the neighbouring conventional crops because of notoriously lax safeguards. This is evident from a ban imposed by the government on GM trials or research in basmati rice and in basmati-growing areas. The idea is to save basmati rice from the stigma of GM contamination so that India retains its competitive edge in the trade of this much valued food crop.

An advisory issued by the government takes pains to say: "No GM trials or research have been permitted by Government of India in basmati and basmati growing areas. Therefore, rice grown in India is GM free and there is no cause of concern with regard to any possible GM contamination of Indian rice."

In another major setback to the GM lobby, Nature Biotechnology, the most prestigious scientific journal in the field, came out this month with the first documented case of pest resistance to Bt cotton, which happens to be the only GM crop that has so far been cleared for commercial production in India.

According to the journal, a team of scientists from the University of Arizona in US has found the first confirmation that insects have developed resistance to transgenic crops, reinforcing the worst-case scenario portrayed by critics of GM crops.

The report comes in the run-up to a key hearing in the Supreme Court on Wednesday on a contempt petition filed by activist Aruna Rodrigues against GEAC for clearing fresh field trials in brinjal and other food crops last year despite a judicial stay.

The petition singles out Bt brinjal as a "critical bio-safety hazard" since India is the "functional centre of origin" for that vegetable.

 source: Times of India