India’s seed market hides a sea of illegality, which keeps rearing its ugly head every once in a while. The discovery of genetically modified brinjal in a Haryana farmer’s field is the latest in the list of illegal seeds that have cropped up in India since 2001.

That year, it was illegal Bt cotton (a genetically-modified, pest-resistant plant cotton variety); in 2009 it was illegal herbicide-tolerant H cotton; a few years later, it was a newer version of Bollgard cotton, or BG 3 as its locally called; and in 2017, a herbicide-tolerant, or HT, soybean. All this without official approval from the regulator and enforcer of the law for genetically-engineered crops in India, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee.

This situation puts the role of the appraisal committee squarely under the scanner. An apex regulatory body, with powers to take punitive action when needed, under the Environment Protection Act, it seems to have turned a blind eye to these developments.

The committee, constituted in 1990 under the Union environment ministry is responsible for the appraisal of activities involving large-scale use of hazardous microorganisms and recombinants in research and industrial production from the environmental angle.

The committee is also responsible for the appraisal of proposals relating to the release of genetically-engineered organisms and products into the environment, including experimental field trials.

The committee is supposed to meet on the second Wednesday of every month to consider various application and policy issues. So far, as per its website, this has been achieved only once in 2005, where a meeting every month was held as scheduled. The website lists only one meeting held in the past five months of 2019.

The committee, however, did bare its teeth in its initial years.

In 2001, Navbharat Seeds, Ahmedabad, started marketing a GM variety of cotton seed, Navbharat 151, without the committee’s approval. When the environment ministry learned of the cultivation of this illegal seed, it sent a notice to the company seeking an explanation. The ministry also tested a packet of the seeds at the Delhi University for the presence of the Cry1Ac gene. The results were positive for genetic engineering.

The ministry then sent CD Mayee, director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur, and TV Ramaiah, from the government’s Department of Biotechnology, for an investigation to fields near Ahmedabad. Tests conclusively proved that Navbharat 151 was transgenic cotton. The appraisal committee asked the managing director of Navbharat Seeds to appear before it.

Finally, the committee directed the Gujarat State Biotechnology Coordination Committee to uproot the standing crop of Navbharat 151 and destroy it by burning (which did not happen), among other actions. That was in October 2001. Ironically, by March 2002, the committee had approved the commercial release of Bt cotton.

Bt cotton crop at Nagarjuna Sagar. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Although little came of it, the committee’s reaction in 2001 was laudable compared to its later performance. Since then, the committee’s functioning has been riddled with allegations by environmental activists of conflict of interest, lack of transparency and brazen inaction.

In 2009, environmentalist Aruna Rodrigues, the petitioner in the public interest litigation against genetically modified crops that was filed in the Supreme Court in 2005, complained to the committee about the sale of herbicide tolerant cotton under the brand name Weedgard. Agrochemical company Monsanto also complained to the authority about the sale of these illegal seeds, noting the technology of HT cotton that it had developed had not been approved for release in India.

The issue was debated by the committee which, according to the minutes of its meeting in July 2009, expressed “deep concern regarding the illegal sale and cultivation of HT cotton seeds in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh and opined that matters of such serious nature needs to be investigated at the highest level and criminal proceedings should be initiated against the culprits”.

The committee requested its chairman to take up the matter with the chief secretaries of the respective state governments but that didn’t translate into action on the ground. There is also a pending application in the Supreme Court with regard to illegal HT soy and the import of viable genetically engineered seeds of several crops.

Curious case of Bt brinjal

There has been an indefinite moratorium since 2010 on commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal in India, imposed by Jairam Ramesh, then environment minister.

However, according to a legal notice sent by the lawyer Prashant Bhushan to the Union Minister for Environment Harsh Vardhan on April 23 this year, Rajinder Chaudhary of Kudrati Kheti Abhiyan, a group that encourages organic farming in Haryana, reported to the appraisal committee that a farmer in Fatehabad, Haryana, had been growing Bt brinjal. A sample tested by the lateral flow strip method showed positive results for the Bt Cry1Ac gene. A scanned copy of the report was also sent to the committee, which received it on April 25, the notice said.

Meanwhile, the Haryana government sent test samples to the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, which did not detect the Cry1Ac gene. Kuldip Singh, the bureau’s director, said they were asked to test samples only for the Cry1Ac event and it was negative. However, there are other marker genes that indicate the sample is a genetically modified organism. A report has been sent to the Haryana government. Some more tests are needed to identify the marker genes, he added. An official in the Haryana government said a committee was discussing the course of action and further investigation of the marker genes.

The appraisal committee seems to be nowhere in the picture in this case, so far.

Environmentalists from across India protested against Bt brinjal in 2010. One such protest in Bangalore was staged during the visit of then environment minister Jairam Ramesh. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

After filing the complaint about illegal Bt brinjal cultivation, the activists received an email from Richa Sharma, joint secretary in the environment ministry who is in charge of biosafety, saying the ministry had written to the chief secretary Haryana, who is the chairman of the State Biotechnology Coordination Committee, to look into the matter and take necessary action after verifying facts on ground and stop the illegal cultivation of Bt brinjal.

It must also be pointed out that, back in 2008, the appraisal committee had cleared Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation despite the contentions of several scientists.

Ramesh initiated a scientific review and a series of public hearings, following which he called for a moratorium on its cultivation in February 2010. The committee had clarified in its meeting of February 2010 that “the present decision imposing a moratorium is only for Bt brinjal Event EE-I”.

After the moratorium was issued, the committee was to ascertain that Mahyco, the company that developed the Bt brinjal seeds, and institutions researching such seeds like the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, and the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, deposited all their seed stocks at the NBPGR storage facility.

The NBPGR director Singh confirmed to Mongabay-India that Mahyco or anyone else did not deposit the seeds with the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources.

Threat to India’s biosecurity

In the face of regulatory inaction, civil society has taken the initiative to test the samples of brinjal from Haryana and is unreservedly critical of the appraisal committee. Rodrigues said Bt brinjal planting was an egregious violation of the indefinite moratorium and claimed that the committee turns a blind eye because of conflict of interest. It is also the most serious breach of India’s biosafety, brinjal biodiversity and therefore, biosecurity.

“India has the greatest brinjal germplasm in the world with 2,500 varieties including wild species, which is now under threat of irreversible contamination because of cumulative acts over time of senseless and criminally irresponsible regulatory oversight,” she added.

Kavitha Kuruganti, co-convenor of the Coalition for a GM Free India, an informal network opposing the release of genetically-modified organisms in the country, said: “It is not clear whether the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee has any control on what is happening in various trials it has approved and on seed production that happens in the garb of some trials. The mystery of this GM brinjal in Haryana – which tested positive in a Cry1Ac /1Ab lateral flow strip test we conducted but has now been found to not contain Cry1Ac gene by the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources – only deepens. What is clear is that unapproved and illegal GMOs are just appearing in farmers’ fields and the produce entering the food chain. What will be the decisive and deterrent action from the committee is not clear despite so many days after our complaint.”

The committee has also allowed imports of GM soya bean oil from time to time. Among those who voiced concern about this was the late Pushp Bhargav, who the Supreme Court had nominated to the committee. It was Bhargav who first raised questions about the tests clearing Bt brinjal and told the Parliamentary Standing Committee on GM Crops in 2012 of the immense pressure the scientists were under to approve the seed.

In the last few years, BG 3, which is supposed to be an improved version of Monsanto Mahyco’s Bollgard 2, is being grown in Maharashtra and elsewhere, also without approval. The Central Institute of Cotton Research has also taken note of this illegal cotton but, being a scientific institution and not a regulatory agency, there is little it can do about it. In 2017, transgenic soya bean was grown by farmers in Gujarat and it was the Gujarat government that initiated some punitive measures against seed suppliers and farmers.

With advances in biotechnology, there is an urgent need for stringent regulation or scrutiny in the sector to ensure cultivation and sale of environmentally-safe agro products. The current situation, unless remedied, could have dire consequences.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.