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[NEW DELHI] India should streamline its system for approving the commercial planting of genetically modified (GM) crops, according to a high-level expert committee set up to advise the government on how to handle the regulation of agricultural biotechnology.

In a report that is yet to be officially released, the committee, which is headed by M. S. Swaminathan, father of India's Green Revolution, criticises India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) for its "lengthy and cumbersome" approval procedures. It recommends instead creating an autonomous Agricultural Biotechnology Regulatory Authority to consider the approval of GM crops in the country.

Until the new regulatory body is set up, the committee says, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) should be authorised to conduct and assess large-scale field trials and approve commercial release of GM crops.

At present, India has a three-tier regulatory system for GM crops: each research organisation must have an Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBSA), which carries out assessments of research proposals; a national Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) assesses field trials for environmental safety and allergic responses; and the GEAC — which is part of the environment ministry — carries out environmental impact assessment, and approves multi-location field trials and commercial cultivation.

The seven-member committee, which was set up by the government's Department of Agriculture and Cooperation, and comprises senior health and food officials and representatives of the seed industry, suggests retaining the three tiers, but changing their responsibilities and the way in which they operate.

The major change that they recommend is to limit GEAC's role to environmental clearance, shifting approval of commercial planting of GM crops to the ICAR. In effect, this would mean that the ICAR, rather than the GEAC, would decide whether GM crops could be planted for commercial purposes.

"The report, which has collated the inputs provided by a variety of stakeholders, is an important step in trying to improve the system for implementing an agricultural biotech policy," says Suman Sahai, convenor of Gene Campaign.  "We need to build on it."

Some of its suggestions have been broadly welcomed by GM critics, such as encouraging greater transparency in the evaluation of GM crops, including farmers in GM crop assessment, labelling GM products, and setting up organic farming zones where GM crops cannot be grown. Its recommendations on streamlining the regulatory process are likely to be welcomed in India's growing biotechnology industry.

But other recommendations are already being criticised by some biotechnologists and non-governmental organisations, which argue that since ICAR promotes GM crops, it should not be allowed to approve GM cultivation. "You cannot have a referee who is interested in [running in] the race," says Prasanta Ghosh, former advisor to the Department of Biotechnology, who describes the recommendations as "biased".

"There is a conflict of interest as ICAR itself is engaged in GM research," agrees Sahai. She adds that ICAR does not have the technical competence to do assessment of risks, biosafety, environmental and long-term ecological safety.

Furthermore, according to some nongovernmental groups, the changes will not necessarily speed up the approval process. "This has only complicated the matter," says Ashesh Tayal, scientific advisor to Greenpeace India, which took part in the panel's discussions. "It is not clear how shifting the responsibility from one ministry to another will reduce the timeframe for clearance of GM crops."

Others fear that such changes would compromise the current rigour of the system. "This is not the right stage to introduce any changes," says former GEAC co-chairman Sushil Kumar. "The rigour of the existing regulatory system is adequate. We need more experience with GM crops before we ease control."

Indian scientists are carrying out research into several GM crops, including, rice, maize, mustard, sugarcane, sorghum, and soyabean. But so far only Monsanto's Bt cotton has been approved for commercial cultivation (see India approves cultivation of GM crops).

Other recommendations by the committee have also come under fire. For example, it recommends that a gene that has been assessed for biosafety in one crop need not be tested in other crops. But critics argue that genes cannot be assessed in isolation, but only as part of the genome into which they are introduced, and so testing should be done on a case-by-case basis.