Unshackle the Biotechnology Sector

Reform Idea

Leverage the potential of modern biotechnology by creating an independent regulatory body responsible for certifying genetic technology for commercial use.

Why is this reform necessary?

India is the world’s largest producer and consumer of pulses, and one of its largest consumers of edible oil. Accordingly, a considerable amount of India’s inflation is driven by the fluctuation of pulse prices, and there is a substantial import dependence for them and for oilseeds as well (an estimated 70%). Ironically, much of the edible oil that India imports and consumes is genetically-modified while growing those very crops is still banned in the country.

Furthermore, in the context of global climate change and our rapidly growing population (1.8 billion by 2050), it becomes even more important to turn to the latest in biotechnology to boost yields. A broad consultation by the NITI Aayog in 2015 found that there is a demand among both scientists and farmers for better crop varieties.

However, the Indian experience with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) has been singularly rocky, with accusations that GMO crops were linked to farmer suicides, and major political opposition. Another concern is the lack of transparency and accountability in the regulatory system. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee is under the Ministry of Environment and Forests and often does not publish its findings before granting approval to a GMO. This has led to accusations of deliberate deception and questions as to its independence and impartiality. After the Bt Brinjal fiasco of 2010, the Centre gave States the right to veto field testing of GMO crops. As of 2017, only eight states so far have approved field trials.

There is very little private investment in GM crops due to the attendant controversies – and public enterprises are underfunded and demotivated by the extremely tight regulatory framework. Most recently, the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology has made it drastically cheaper and more affordable to create accurately edited organisms. Its scientific potential, as well as its risks, are immense.

India needs to urgently revise its outlook towards GMOs, by creating an independent regulatory body responsible for certifying genetic technology for commercial use.

What will this reform achieve?

Unshackling the biotechnology industry would provide better crop varieties, result in better farmer incomes, reduce import dependence and inflation, and lead to better nutrition and a healthier population.

What is needed to carry it out?

A Bill would need to be introduced on the lines of 2013’s lapsed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill, to establish a truly independent and transparent regulatory body. The body would need to have a presence at the State and Central levels, and have only two primary responsibilities.

First, certifying the safety of gene-edited organisms meant for commercialisation by performing its own research and trials, to be published for review by the scientific community. Certifications need to be affordable and time-bound.

Second, prescribing rigorous scientific standards and licensing private accreditation firms  to certify laboratories’ compliance.

This would allow the regulator to focus on its primary duty: ensuring that genetically-modified foods consumed by the public are safe, while lowering development and approval costs for R&D.

This streamlined approval mechanism addresses multiple issues that India has had with regulators. It eliminates issues of conflict of interest and complaints of a lack of transparency in the approval process. It ensures a high standard of biotechnology research. And most importantly, it streamlines the commercialisation process, thus providing an incentive for private biotechnology firms to invest in R&D.

What are the obstacles to this reform?

India’s experience with GMOs, as pointed out, has been rocky. We lag behind most major agricultural economies in R&D, and there are powerful politicized narratives against GMOs in addition to legitimate concerns about safety. To cap it all, there is very little awareness of the potential of this technology.

It will be difficult to build a sustained popular movement or public debate in support of GMOs. As an agrarian issue, it will be vital to have a consensus at the state level as well.

This said, GMOs have incredible potential to address many of India’s issues in our agricultural sector. Technological progress cannot be halted, and the rest of the world isn’t going to wait while we build a political consensus.