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  • India under fire for 'misleading' biosafety statements

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[NEW DELHI] The Indian government has denied accusations that it has misled the international community over its biosafety commitments.

Suman Sahai, a geneticist and the convener of the Delhi-based nongovernmental organisation Gene Campaign, has attacked statements made by the government that it has established an efficient domestic regulatory framework for genetically modified organisms. 

Sahai's claims followed remarks made by Indian representatives at an international meeting on the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, held in Bonn, Germany, from May 12–16.

Signatories to the protocol agree to abide by global minimum standards on biosafety, intended to protect biological diversity from potential risks from genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The protocol sets out broad guidelines, while leaving countries to produce their own laws putting these guidelines into effect. Such laws can take into account the stage of the country's biotechnology industry and their policies on allowing GM foodstuffs into their country, for example.

Government officials said in Bonn that full risk assessments and environmental reviews had been carried out for all GM crops being tested in India.

But Sahai charges that there is no data in the public domain on allergy and toxicity tests carried out on genetically engineered crops, no environmental review of GM cotton, or an analysis of the socioeconomic impact of GM crops.

She also points out that the country does not have a law for compensating people for any damage caused by GM crops, a policy on the approval of GM crops for which India is one of the 'centres of origin', or a law on labelling genetically engineered foods.

An official from India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), which operates under the ministry of environment and forests, denies the accusations, saying they are "unsubstantiated" and that some relate to issues still under international discussion.

The government is working towards meeting all its obligations under the protocol, adds the GEAC official, who told SciDev.Net that Sahai's charges do not apply to the current status of GM crops in India.

For example, the official points out that India only permits commercial cultivation of GM cotton, and has not yet approved commercial growing or importing of GM crops for food, animal feed, or processing.

The official says the government has submitted risk assessment data to GEAC on all food and non-food GM crops under trials — including risk assessments on crops whose centre of origin is in India — and customs officials at airports have detailed guidelines on restrictions on import of living modified organisms. 

The official also says India is waiting for the final outcome of international discussions on fixing liability for damage by GM products, before enacting a national law.

But Sahai is unrepentant. She says that state and district level monitoring committees for genetically engineered products do not exist, and customs staff at airports are largely unaware of genetically engineered organisms.

Despite the government's reassurances, Sahai says, "The [Indian] government's regulatory framework is widely considered grossly inadequate and has been challenged by scientists, intellectuals and civil society organisations through public interest litigations in Indian courts."

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