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[NEW DELHI] The Indian government has drawn criticism from civil society organisations over gaps in regulating trials and safety data on genetically modified (GM) crops in recent months.

The international nongovernmenal organisation Greenpeace told reporters last week (15 October) that India's monitoring and enforcement of GM crop trials "are in shambles". They say state governments often have no knowledge of field trials being conducted and biosafety tests are being increasingly outsourced to private firms, with no evidence of government oversight.

India is currently testing 56 GM crops, including 41 food crops, developed by public and private institutes. Genetically modified Bt cotton, containing a gene that is lethal to bollworm pests, is the only GM crop grown commercially in India. GM aubergine, mustard, rice and tomato are undergoing trials.

But a senior official at India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), which clears trials of GM crops, told SciDev.Net that regulatory standards were being maintained. GEAC has authorised state agricultural universities to regulate GM crop trials in their respective states "and so far we have found them to be competent in their job", she says.

Trials of Bt rice in the central Indian state of Jharkhand also came under sharp criticism by the Delhi-based nongovernmental organisation Gene Campaign in September. Gene Campaign's convener Suman Sahai says an independent survey of the trial sites by her organisation reveals serious gaps in the methods of the Maharashtra Hybrid Company (MAHYCO), an Indian partner of biotechnology company Monsanto. 

Especially worrying, says Sahai, is that Jharkhand is home to rich rice biodiversity that could be seriously affected by contamination with GM crops.

Sahai says that in addition to both farmers and the state agricultural university being unaware of the trials, rice was grown during months when there are no pests making the study of pest resistance difficult, there was no physical containment of the trial sites from surrounding farmers' fields, and trials were conducted uphill of normal fields allowing water containing seeds and soil to flow onto them.

Indian government officials and MAHYCO did not respond to Sahai's charges made public last month (September 16).

The Indian government has proposed that a National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (NBRA) be set up as a 'single-window clearance system' for all genetically modified crop and medicinal products. A draft bill on the NBRA is in circulation for comments.

But Pushpa Bhargava, former director of the Hyderabad-based Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology and appointed by an Indian court to the GEAC in August, told SciDev.Net, setting up a new body is meaningless, "without first identifying what is wrong with the existing regulatory system and the remedies".