A vexatious issue in all the controversies related to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is the conflict of interest that now seems all pervasive, often leading to biased conclusions and recommendations that go into regulatory decision-making. There is proof that even when it comes to scientific evidence, the ones concluding that GM crops are safe are mostly conducted by biotech companies responsible for commercialising GM plants.
The Department of Biotechnology, which gives taxpayers’ funds to even big private players for transgenic R&D and actively plays a promotional role, also acts as a regulator through the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation. Over the years, the apex regulatory body, Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), had many members who were GM crop developers themselves, apparently keeping the regulatory bar low. Some years ago, a co-chair of the GEAC, who was also a board member of an industry- funded PR organisation for modern biotech, had to quit after persistent calls to rid the regulatory system of such conflict of interest. Then there was the infamous expert committee that looked into the safety of Bt brinjal, which was headed by a GM crop developer. A senior technocrat of the Indian Council of Agriculture Research, who is also a GEAC member, did not hesitate to reopen his wife’s application to get it cleared for field trials when it was initially rejected.
The latest in a series of scandals is the withdrawal of Bikaneri Bt cotton, a public- sector bred GM variety, after contamination with Monsanto’s gene was found. A probe highlighted the fact that the Bt cotton developers were present in the GEAC when approvals were accorded.
While all of this has been a cause for concern with an additional concern arising out of the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill (tabled in the Lok Sabha on 22 April) presenting such a conflict yet again, what is truly worrisome is the fact that this conflict of interest has now permeated an expert committee set up by the Supreme Court.
Last November, in a PIL on GMOs being heard by the SC, the court had inducted a new member, RS Paroda, into a Technical Expert Committee (TEC). Paroda was a late addition to the TEC, which was set up based on a consensus arrived at on 15 March 2011 between petitioners and respondents in this PIL. Three TEC members were nominated by the petitioners and three by the government. One of the government nominees dropped out and the other five gave a unanimous interim report last October, asking for some radical improvements to be brought about in the regulatory regime. However, the agriculture ministry objected to such a unanimous report of a mutually agreed TEC and managed to get Paroda appointed into the TEC. Strangely enough, the SC appointed Paroda after having passed orders in August that said, “The person who has not joined in spite of the order may be dropped from the panel as the vacancy is not causing any prejudice.”
Now, it turns out that Paroda is not so independent after all. The organisations that he heads — Trust for Advancement of Agricultural Sciences (TAAS) and Asia Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions (APAARI) have biotech industry connections. On the board of TAAS is the chair of Mahyco, which is Monsanto’s main Indian partner. APAARI receives funding from Mahyco and Monsanto. Moreover, Paroda has served on Monsanto’s Global Biotech Advisory Council.
In October 2006, asking the government to associate independent experts with the GEAC, the SC said, “Before suggesting the names of independent experts, the government shall ask prospective persons as to whether they are being funded directly or indirectly by the biotech industry.” The government chose not to reveal that Paroda’s outfits receive funding from biotech firms; Paroda himself did not proactively do so either and recuse himself from this role as he should have.
As the final TEC report is expected in the coming week, this new development, of the SC’s expert committees also having such conflict of interest, is worrisome — not just in the context of this case, but for various science & technology related cases where the SC clearly admits to lack of expertise and turns to experts to give it sound, independent advice.