India Eyes 10-Year Ban on GM Field Trials

Growing dispute. An Indian advisory panel has called for a decadelong moratorium on field trials of genetically modified plants, including cotton (above) and food crops.

U.S. Department of Agriculture

HYDERABAD, INDIA—A court-appointed scientific panel on 17 October has come down heavy on genetically modified (GM) foods. It is calling for a 10-year moratorium on field trials of any GM food crop as well as nonfood crops such as cotton equipped to produce an insect-killing toxin from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). A decade, the panel said, "is a reasonable length of time" to strengthen India's regulatory regime and develop "a cadre of experts in areas of relevance to food safety evaluation, environmental impact assessment etc."

The recommendations delivered to India's Supreme Court are not binding. The court has not yet scheduled a hearing on the report, after which it could issue a directive compelling the government to implement a ban. In the meantime, biotech leaders hope to rally public opinion behind GM crops. "The scientific community should now stand up and tell the people of India, 'Please take responsibility,' " says Maharaj Kishan Bhan, a vaccine specialist and secretary of the Department of Biotechnology in New Delhi.

The call for a ban clashes with a report last week from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's scientific advisory council, which hailed genetic modification as a transformational technology that has paid dividends for agriculture and health. "The current debate, unfortunately, is demoralizing and isolating our scientists," says council chair C. N. R. Rao, a chemist at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore.

GM crops have an uneven record in India. One success story scientists say is Bt cotton, which now accounts for 93% of the total crop sown in India. Food crops have not fared so well. In 2010, the government halted plans to commercialize Bt brinjal, a kind of eggplant. Then in August, a panel appointed by India's Parliament stated that field trials of GM crops "under any garb should be discontinued forthwith" and that all R&D should "only be done in strict containment." As a result, Parliament is now mulling the creation of a national Biotechnology Regulatory Authority to serve as a GM watchdog.

Some scientists fear the latest report will strengthen the hand of GM opponents. In May, the Supreme Court of India appointed the six-member panel of scientists to offer advice in an ongoing case in which anti-GM activist Aruna Rodrigues and others have challenged the introduction of GM crops in India. Among the panel's recommendations are calls for more rigorous "intergeneration" animal feeding studies, a halt on trials conducted outside public institutes, and the removal of advisers with conflicts of interest from regulatory bodies.

Bhan hopes the Supreme Court will not send the wrong message at a time when GM research, he argues, should be stepped up to meet challenges to food productivity posed by climate change and a rising population. Down the road, he says, "scientists should not be blamed for not being sensitive for meeting the future food security needs of the country."