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[NEW DELHI] Genetically modified (GM) crop research in India is unfocused, and not regulated in a transparent way, says a joint Swedish-Indian study.

The report, Agricultural Biotechnology and Biosafety in India: Expectations, outcomes and lessons, was published in April by the Stockholm Environment Institute, Sweden, and Centre for Budget and Policy Studies in Bangalore, India.

It says it is unlikely that a GM crop developed by an Indian public sector institute will reach the market before 2007. For this to happen one or more institutions would need to begin large field trials this year, the public would have to accept GM crops, and agreements over intellectual property rights for techniques patented by transnational corporations would have to be successfully and swiftly concluded.

Discussing national regulations for GM crops, the study notes: "Neither the various stakeholders nor the general public know whether there is a system of biosafety accountability and how it operates."

The Indian study is part of the 'Comparative Asian Biosafety Project' supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), and is based on questionnaires and interviews with officials from public and private sector institutes as well as civil society organisations.

Late in 2004, Indian scientists were working on 19 GM crops. Most had completed laboratory and greenhouse tests; and six — rice, tomato, cotton, potato, tobacco and melon — had undergone contained field trials. So far, none has entered large-scale field trials.

The study says the Indian Department of Biotechnology's emphasis since the 1990s on capacity building has led to a growing number of projects covering a wide variety of crops and traits, with no focus.

Different research groups are working on the same crops and traits without coordinating and dividing the work, it observes.

Public sector institutions that want to conduct large-scale field trials and disseminate GM technology lack financial, infrastructure and field staff support, adds the study. It says this means the government both promotes and holds back the GM crops at the same time.

Private sector efforts to introduce GM crops in India began in 1995, when the seed company Mahyco got government approval to import GM cotton seeds from US-based Monsanto to breed with selected Indian cotton varieties. Indian companies continue to import GM seeds from North America and Western Europe to create hybrids with Indian varieties.

The study also notes the total absence in regulatory bodies of social scientists, research representatives of civil society organisations, private sector companies and institutions. It says "it is impossible to find out" which criteria regulatory authorities use in their risk assessments, and which issues they debate. This, it says, could undermine government efforts to promote public trust in biotechnology and biosafety systems.

Monsanto's Bt cotton is the only GM crop to be commercialised in India so far. The study says the Bt cotton case raises some serious questions about the structure and implementation of India's biosafety regulatory regime.

During research in Karnataka on Bt cotton, the study found the monitoring and evaluation by the Department of Biotechnology to be "cursory and very narrowly focused."

It was limited to measuring the Bt and non-Bt cotton yields, bollworm pest levels, migration of the bollworm on trial plots, and the frequency and magnitude of pesticide spraying.

It did not independently and intensively assess risks such as pollen and gene flow to other nearby plants, impact on the health of livestock feeding on Bt cotton seeds, or potential agronomic and socio-economic impact of Bt cotton.

It says it is difficult to verify whether these omissions are limited to that district or are common to all field trials on Bt cotton, as the main regulatory authority Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has declined to put it's reports into the public domain, despite repeated calls by civil society organisations and the media.

The study also notes the government did not commission long-term safety studies nor monitoring of the potential build-up of Bt-resistant insects.

Nor has the government effectively dealt with Indian companies selling illegal Bt cotton seeds — containing the same genes as the patented Monsanto varieties' — at low prices. The harvest from one such Indian company, Navbharat Seeds, reached the market in 2001, the same year as Monsanto's Bt cotton was cleared for cultivation.

Since then, illegal Bt-cotton varieties have proliferated and have been openly marketed in all the major cotton growing areas of the country.

Read more about GM crops in SciDev.Net's GM Crops dossier.

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