Why India’s Approach to Regulating GM Crops Is a Cause for Concern

20 February 2015
On 29 January 2015, the Maharasthra government decided to allow field trials of five strains of genetically modified (GM) crops: brinjal, maize, rice, chickpea and cotton.
AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh
On 29 January 2015, the Maharasthra government decided to allow field trials of five strains of genetically modified (GM) crops: brinjal, maize, rice, chickpea and cotton.
AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh

On 29 January 2015, the Maharashtra government decided to take forward its decision to grant no objection certificates (NOCs) for field trials of five strains of genetically modified (GM) crops. Until now, field trials have only been allowed in Punjab, Delhi and Andhra Pradesh. This decision was the latest in a recent series of bureaucratic flash points, each of which have failed to delineate a uniform approach to India’s ongoing debate over GM crop technology.

In principle, these NOCs merely function as an indicator of the state government’s consent for the field trials of five particular GM crop strains: brinjal, maize, rice, chickpea and cotton. That consent must then be coupled with a nod from the Ministry of Environment’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), at which point GM producers may begin the process of conducting field trials.

There has been some disagreement, however, as to just what sort of field trials Maharashtra has allowed. While statements by the GEAC have referred to “confined trials,” which are typically carried out in plots of one hectare or less under close supervision, others have referred to them as “open field trials.” Back in 2013, Aruna Rodrigues—lead petitioner in an ongoing Supreme Court case against GM crop introduction in India—charged that there was “no difference” between confined and open-field trials, calling the former a “misnomer.” A member of the Supreme Court Technical Expert Committee (TEC) that was formed in 2012 in response to Ms Rodrigues’ case told me that there is a “gray area in distinguishing confined field trials from open field trials.” He explained that while the differentiation is largely meant to be one of scale—where open field trials take place on much larger plots of land—the source of confusion often comes from the lack of formal ground rules that define just how small a confined field trial is. He also indicated that the difference in scale between the two field trials becomes “less consistent” in practice and that the criteria differentiating a confined trial from an open one are often “arbitrary.”

Udit Thakur is a freelance writer and researcher. He writes on issues of comparative religion, politics, and human security, and is based in Mumbai.

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