The Chairman of the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) says genetically-engineered (GE) mustard and fruit borer resistant Bt brinjal should be released for cultivation because the safety of the two crops has been demonstrated during confined field trials in the case of GE mustard and in farmers’ fields in Bangladesh where it is being cultivated since October 2013.
In an interview at his residence in Secunderabad, B Sesikaran said “safe human use is evidence of safety,” and GE crops have not damaged the environment or posed a threat to human and animal health in the two decades they have been cultivated since 1996. A medical pathologist by training, Sesikaran has been chairman of RCGM for the past three years. Before that, for six years he was director of Hyderabad’s National Institute of Nutrition.
RCGM is the apex technical body under the department of biotechnology in the ministry of science and technology. It prescribes protocols for research and safety trials of genetically-engineered crops.
The GE mustard awaiting regulatory approval has been developed by a team of Delhi University scientists led by geneticist and former vice-chancellor of Delhi University, Deepak Pental. He had submitted the risk assessment dossier to the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) in late 2015, so it could recommend it for open release. DMH-11 has missed the 2016 rabi planting season as the government has been vacillating.
As for Bt brinjal, a moratorium on its release was imposed by then environment minister Jairam Ramesh in 2010, following noisy protests by anti-GM activists. The genetically-engineered variety has a toxic gene obtained from a soil bacterium which makes it toxic to the fruit borer but not to humans.
Bangladesh approved its cultivation in October 2013 on the basis of Indian bio-safety data. “Has anyone died?” asks Sesikaran, who laments that farmers across the border in West Bengal suffer losses because the Bt variety has not been approved for cultivation in India.
Sesikaran says India’s regulatory system is good. Even before a genetically-engineered product comes to the RCGM for safety tests, its usefulness and sustainability has to be established by the applicant company or institute. Though these studies are conducted by the applicants themselves, they are reliable, he says, because the data is verifiable.
Sesikaran decried the paranoia of anti-GM activists who say experts sitting in the regulatory bodies often move to the private corporate sector, and this colours their judgement. With this kind of suspicion “we will ultimately land up with activists as regulators.”