Jul 15, 2008

India - Precaution is the key

Unlike traditional breeding techniques, whereby hybrids are produced by transferring genes within varieties belonging to the same species, genetically modified crops involve transfer of genes across species. Thus in the case of Bt cotton, a gene of a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), is inserted into cotton varieties to give them resistance against bollworm pests. If changes in a single or a few bases in the DNA can turn a normal cell into a c ancerous one in humans and animals, biosafety studies for allergenicity and toxicity of the transgenic plants on humans and animals who consume or come into contact with them, must therefore be thoroughly examined. Six years after the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) permitted the commercial cultivation of Bt cotton in India, there is no dedicated laboratory to verify the samples and validate the biosafety results provided by companies. The GEAC, unlike its counterparts in various countries where GM crops are cultivated, has “supported the suggestion” of setting up such an independent laboratory, as the minutes of the 85th committee meeting held in May indicate. The GEAC would do well also to insist on chronic toxicity testing in animals. This is essential as acute testing may not reveal long-term effects, and unlike drug trials, no trials on humans are ever conducted using GM crops.
If animal toxicity testing is strict in the case of drugs, the requirements for a genetically modified crop should be as stringent. Drugs can be recalled from the market when found to cause harm. But corrective measures are very difficult, if not impossible, in the case of GM plants once they are released into the environment. This underlines the need to build a system and a culture of independent verification. Precaution should be the watchword. The first step in this direction is to strengthen the current system and involve State agricultural universities in participating actively in the monitoring and evaluation of field trials. The current practice of relying solely on companies to provide samples for testing is unsatisfactory. Instead, the universities involved in monitoring the trials must be authorised to collect samples for the independent laboratory. Another good practice will be to make the full results of the study available for public access, as in the case of drug trials. The enlightened policy approach will be to encourage research in laboratories and put on hold approvals for field trials until these measures are in place. The experience of European countries has shown that public apprehensions about GM crops must not be taken lightly by those who think they know better.

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