Wednesday, February 17, 2010

NEW BIOTECH REGULATOR BILL IS ANTI-PEOPLE , WILL STIFLE ANTI-GM VOICES

NEW BIOTECH REGULATOR BILL IS ANTI-PEOPLE , WILL STIFLE ANTI-GM VOICES:
“INDIA NEEDS A NATIONAL BIOSAFETY PROTECTION AUTHORITY”

Chandigarh, February 16, 2010: Terming the proposed Biotech Regulator Bill (Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill) as a wrong bill by the wrong people for the wrong reasons, several groups across the country called for the setting up of a National Biosafety Protection Authority.

The Supreme Court observer in Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), Dr Pushpa Bhargava objected to the fact that the proposed Authority is to be housed under the Department of Biotechnology/Ministry of Science & Technology and said that this in itself is objectionable conflict of interest. “The latest version of the Biotech Regulator Bill in India seems to have draconian clauses to stifle anti-GM voices in the country and is designed to be a Clearing House for GMO applications rather than to protect the health and environment in the country. Further, modern biotechnology is a vast field comprising of more than thirty distinct areas including immuno-technology, stem cell technologies, nano-biotechnology etc., whereas this proposed Biotech Regulator appears to look at just Genetic Engineering. To call it a regulator for modern biotechnology is misleading and only shows the ignorance of the people who drafted this Bill”, pointed out Dr Bhargava, Founder-Director of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology.

There was serious objection to the inclusion of a Section in the proposed Bill which says “whoever, without any evidence or scientific record misleads the public about safety of GMOs and products thereof shall be punished” with imprisonment and fine! “This is meant to harass civil society groups and scientists who are voicing their concern on this technology and who is to decide on “misleading”, on what basis?”, asked Dr Bhargava. Rather than penalize those who intend to release GMOs without conclusive safety proven, clauses like this are being inserted to harass concerned voices, he said.

“This Biotech Regulator Bill is being pushed by the Department of Biotechnology, a department with the mandate to promote GM crops. It is trying to take advantage of the current debate in the country around Bt Brinjal (a first-of-its-kind Genetically Modified vegetable with a bacterial gene in it) and push its own agenda in the form of this Bill. The nation-wide debate that Bt Brinjal initiated had actually shown the dire need for a regulator who Indians can trust to protect their health and environment – we need a National Biosafety Protection Authority and not another ‘facilitator’ for the industry. The wide-ranging people’s voices all over the country now show that any attempt to allow backdoor entry of Bt Brinjal or other GMOs through BRAI or some such institution will be resisted. The proposed statute also tries to stifle the legitimate authority of state governments over Agriculture and vests decision-making in the hands of just a few technical people whereas the issue of GMOs in our food and farming systems has many facets beyond the purely technical”, said Kavitha Kuruganti of Kheti Virasat Mission.

The Government of India was reminded that the 2004 Task Force Report on Agricultural Biotechnology had highlighted the need for the following in any biotechnology regulatory policy: “the safety of the environment, the well being of farming families, the ecological and economic sustainability of farming systems, the health and nutrition security of consumers, safeguarding of home and external trade and the biosecurity of the nation”. These important aspects or cornerstones do not find any place in the draft Bill sought to be introduced.

Umendra Dutt of Alliance for GM-Free & Safe Foods, Punjab, said that the proposed legislation, instead of expressly having clauses on information disclosure, that too before decision-making takes place for independent/public scrutiny, has brought in clauses on retaining Confidential Commercial Information. As past experience in India has shown with the Right to Information struggle to bring out the biosafety data on Bt Brinjal, this cannot be left to the discretion of the officials in the Authority and all product development and biosafety-related information has to be pro-actively disclosed and placed in the public domain before decision-making.

On Risk Assessment procedures as laid down in the proposed legislation, it’s pointed out that ‘risk assessment should consist not only of an independent, scientific, transparent evaluation of the biosafety dossier submitted by the crop/product developer including mandatory public scrutiny but also independent testing for further verification of results. Any proposed Authority should have the testing capabilities established for this. Dr Bhargava has already submitted a blueprint for the setting up of such a laboratory and the government should proceed to implement this as part of the National Biosafety Protection Authority’.

A set of issues with the current Bill is annexed and it is hoped that Members of Parliament will ensure that a National Biosafety Protection Authority is set up soon in this country to ensure the sustainable development interests of all Indians.

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