Poor regulators do not a rich country make

IN this past month, farmer associations in Haryana and Tamil Nadu have located and burnt field trials for genetically modified Bt rice. In Chhattisgarh the state government has stopped similar trials happening under its nose. It is all too easy to deride these actions as the handiwork of some misinformed eco-fundamentalists or miscreants out to seek ‘cheap’ publicity. It can also be argued that these actions will impede scientific progress designed to find answers to malnutrition and food insecurity in the country. It can then be logically concluded that these actions give the country a ‘bad’ name and dissuade foreign investment.

But if critics of such civil action pause and ask what is it that forces people to take such extreme steps, they will invariably find that the blame lies elsewhere. This happens because our regulatory institutions are compromised and weak. Because popular confidence in their ability to work in public interest is low. The fact also is that industry systematically undermines these processes. On being caught out, it cries foul.

Take the instance of pesticide regulations, which I know well. A few years ago, we started testing for pesticide residues in our food and water. As we detected toxins and brought it to public attention, the pesticide industry started its blame game. It first accused us of bad science. When we defended our work, the attack shifted to intimidation with a steady bombardment of legal notices (which continue till date). After this too failed, their offensive has become personal. The owner of a leading pesticide company is now circulating obscene cartoons drawn by him on me. Being a woman, they consider me easy game.

The issue for us is different. We have found to our horror that industry is hardly regulated for environmental or food safety in India. That pesticides were registered without the mandatory setting of maximum residue levels or legal limits of what would be allowed in our food. The rest of the world regulates these economic toxins using a trade-off of nutrition versus poison. In other words, it decides first on how much pesticide can be ingested over a lifetime and then carefully stipulates how much is allowed in different items of our diet. We did not even have the concept of the safety threshold in our regulations. Whatever little research is done is not available to public.

This commonsense regulation of modern toxins requires credible scientific institutions that work in public interest. But institutions designed to monitor pesticide residues in India have been increasingly compromised because of their forced alliances with industry. The pesticide industry provides money for research and trials, sponsors its conferences, and it also gives jobs. Like it or not, it has become the benefactor in this private-public partnership. This market formula creates conflicts of interest when research has to be credible and, more importantly, publicly acceptable.

In any case, all the data for registration of a new molecule is provided by the company that has discovered the chemical. When it has spent millions of dollars in developing the molecule, it has an obvious interest in its release.

Regulation of pesticide residues requires state of the art public research: laboratories, inspectors and scientists. When registering a new pesticide in India, we never stop to check if we have the wherewithal to monitor its use, and if whether new equipment (and hence more money) is required. We never consider a mandatory cess on each new registration to pay for its management.

The case of genetically modified (gm) organisms is similar. Some people are ideologically opposed to gm crops. But there are others — like me — who want these crops introduced, but with all precaution to ensure our safety. In other words, we want a credible and effective (kicking) public regulatory policy and framework for the use of gm products in the country.

But it seems that is too much to ask. We have no real policy to decide which gm crops should be allowed. Several parts of the world fear this technology and have disallowed any food products which contain gm organisms — accidentally or intentionally. us rice exports are in deep trouble because of this. gm rice has not been permitted anywhere in the world. Should we allow it?

If yes, how are we to minimise economic, ecological and health damage? Should we allow field trials in states like Chhattisgarh, which is a centre of rice diversity? And what about states like Uttar Pradesh, which produce the prized basmati rice?

If we are to allow trials, how will our regulatory system ensure compliance? For instance, all the farmers who were questioned after their field was uprooted or burnt said that they did not know what was being planted. The field was leased out to the seed company Mahyco. The information about field trials was secret, till activists got it by using the Right To Information Act. The rules require that state- and district-level monitoring committees oversee the trials. In this case, even the state governments had no clue.

If we assume compliance on all these counts, how will we test that our farm produce does not contain gm traces? Do we have the laboratories, or an effective monitoring and enforcement system to tell us if our rice or brinjal is gm? If we are to have a right to choose, it requires funds and facilities for ensuring effective regulations. Can we afford all this? We have no labelling requirements even; much of the food imported into India is likely to be gm.

We can’t assume that we are rich and powerful enough to use modern substances, but too poor to regulate their use in the larger interest of health and the environment. That would be wrong. No, it would be criminal. And it is.

— Sunita Narain