Three states refuse NOC for field trials

GEAC demands Telangana, Gujarat state reasons for declining, will take decision if Maharashtra doesn’t reply on time

Plots in five districts were proposed in 2022 for conducting BRL-1 (first year) trial of GE cotton hybrids for resistance against pink bollworm pest. Photo for representation: iStock
Plots in five districts were proposed in 2022 for conducting BRL-1 (first year) trial of GE cotton hybrids for resistance against pink bollworm pest. Photo for representation: iStock

Only Haryana has approved biosafety research trials (BRL) of genetically engineered (GE) cotton hybrids out of the four states, in which locations for such trials were chosen. While Telangana and Gujarat have refused to give no objection certificates (NOC) for holding the trials in the 2023-24 cropping season, Maharashtra has not responded yet.  

Approvals for the BRL were revealed in the minutes of the 149th meeting of the apex biotechnology regulatory body Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC). The meeting was held on May 17, 2023.

Read more: Wrong to say Bt cotton successful in India: Environmental activists

The GEAC has now asked Telangana and Gujarat to state their reasons for not accepting the proposal and has asked the government of Maharashtra to provide their views and comments along with “appropriate reasoning” within 30 days. 

Plots in five districts were proposed in 2022 for conducting BRL-1 (first year) trial of GE cotton hybrids for resistance against pink bollworm — Rangareddy in Telangana, Jalna and Akola in Maharashtra, Junagadh in Gujarat and Hisar in Haryana. The pink bollworm is an insect known for being a pest in cotton farming.

“In case no response is received from them within the stipulated time, the GEAC will make appropriate recommendations in this matter,” said the minutes of the meeting over approval from Maharashtra. 

The Coalition for GM Free India, a platform of organisations and individuals representing farmers, consumers, experts and activists against genetically modified (GM) crops, has termed these recent events as coercion of state governments for NOCs of field trials. 

Read more: Why are pests developing resistance to Bt cotton in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh?

The GEAC has also recommended taking up a series of “sensitisation workshops” or conferences with the agriculture departments of the states and the Centre. These workshops will “apprise” them with various aspects of GM crops to enable informed decision-making by the state government(s), the minutes added. 

“State governments like Telangana and Gujarat have declined to provide NOCs, but the GEAC is forcing them to provide reasons or break their silence. Why should a statutory regulator pressurise state governments in this manner?” the coalition asked. 

“It has also been recorded that some activities will be taken up with state governments to enable informed decision-making by state governments. This is a biased lobbying approach that a supposedly-neutral regulatory body is taking up,” it said. 

Coalition for GM Free India said:

This is not the mandate of the GEAC and it is highly objectionable that such decisions are being taken to pressurise state governments. We demand that GEAC should stop coercing state governments and demean the capabilities within the states, it added.

Agriculture is a state subject and state governments’ involvement is essential for compliance monitoring. Therefore the NOC system has to be followed, it further said. 

“However, it is also seen that attempts have been made by re-visiting the NOC system multiple times, under pressure from the biotech industry. Event selection trials have been exempted from the NOC system already,” it said. 

Read more: ‘Approval of GM mustard may threaten food security, increase pesticide tolerance’

GEAC continues to approve trials even as numerous state governments announced they are against GM crop field trials, the coalition further said.

This comes in the backdrop of allegations of regulations being violated while approving the controversial GM crop Dhara Mustard Hybrid (DMH-11), which received the nod on October 18, 2022. 

The body had pointed out 15 instances where the central government compromised on appraising and approving the GM mustard. The matter is in the Supreme Court, which is expected to constitute a bench to hear the petitions against the Centre’s approval of “herbicide-tolerant” GM mustard.

Further, as per the minutes of the meeting on May 17, in one another instance, 42 locations across India have been selected for ‘notified field trials’ (NFT) to conduct confined tests of GE crops.

GEAC will consider the proposals for confined field trials for NFT sites without taking any views/comments from the state governments, the minutes further said. 

Read more: GM Mustard, Joshimath: Gagging scientists is a lousy idea; here’s why

Pointing out the example of Bikaneri Bt cotton contamination, the coalition called this a “dangerous proposal”.  

“The Sopory Committee, which looked into Bikaneri Bt cotton contamination, inferred that Monsanto’s proprietary genetic material may have gotten into Bikaneri cotton in an agricultural university. Moreover, such institutes are usually the locations where gene banks are maintained,” it said.

In a country where field trial locations have already proven to be leakage sites for unapproved seeds, why is the statutory regulatory body trying to bypass state governments and looking for hasty ways to taking up trials, the coalition further questioned. 

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