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Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the Indian Science Congress recently that issues like genetically modified (GM) foods cannot be settled by faith, fear or emotion, but by reason. This eminently sensible point of view must be taken to its logical conclusion, which means a review of the government’s present anti-GM policies. Other recent developments, too, make such a review imperative. First, the Supreme Court last November turned down the plea made by its own-appointed technical panel to impose an interim ban on field trials of GM products. Instead, the court modified the composition of the committee and asked it to revisit its recommendations. Second, the government made the labelling of foods containing GM content mandatory from January 1. If food products with GM elements are to be consumed by those who opt to do so, why bar the development of such products at home, leaving the field open for imports?
Perhaps the most noteworthy development of all is the regret expressed by environmentalist Mark Lynas for spearheading a relentless anti-GM movement in Europe since the 1990s, which had resulted in close to zero tolerance in Europe for the development, import and consumption of GM foods. It is indeed significant that, in his statement, Mr Lynas has not only conceded the people’s right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing but has, without mincing words, apologised for assisting to demonise an important technological option that could be used to benefit the environment. Mr Lynas reportedly told The Indian Express that the environment ministry, which banned Bt brinjal field trials, had “let science down by not defending the need for evidence in policy”.
The same local anti-GM lobbyists who campaigned against transgenic brinjal have, unfortunately, continued to thwart modern biotechnology. Field trials of other transgenic crops, notably Bt mustard, were also stopped — virtually sealing the fate of domestic biotech. However, the government’s excessive respect for – and fear of – noisy anti-GM voices appears finally to be dimming. This was reflected in its stand in the court on the interim report of the technical committee. Amidst a spate of representations to the court from both sides of the GM divide, the Attorney General held that a ban on GM trials would have a cascading effect on food security and will make the millennium development goals difficult to achieve.
Nobody imagines that GM technology is wholly risk-free, especially when it involves exchange of genes between alien and entirely unrelated species — as in the case of transgenic Bt crops, which have borrowed genes from the soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis. The greatest care and hazard evaluation are indispensable before allowing such GM products to be field-tested. But once such appraisals have been made, the journey for their further testing and approval for commercial use should be smooth. A trustworthy GM product regulatory mechanism is essential. It is, therefore, regrettable that the well-designed biotechnology regulatory authority Bill, which provides for setting up such a regulatory mechanism, is still pending in Parliament. The government should lose no time in empowering a new regulator and reviewing the various moratoriums on scientific trials.