On the dotted line

  • 14/10/2002

governments in India seem to have a knack of jumping off the deep end, taking little care to first get their homework right. If the recent decision to ratify the multilateral Cartegena protocol on biosafety (cpb) (see also) without first ensuring a strong domestic legislation on import of genetically modified (gm) products is anything to go by, it is only to be hoped the authorities are not caught on the wrong foot.

Indeed the decision on ratification, which comes a good two and a half years after the protocol was adopted in Montreal, appears to have brought little cheer among environmentalists. And with good reason. A weak protocol like cpb would certainly facilitate entry of gm food and products into the country. Unless, of course, we have a strong and concrete set of domestic laws to take care that this does not happen. On the other hand, our scientific community is still hedging over the entire science behind the safety of gm organisms. Look what happened in the case of Bt cotton. Pressure from farmers and intense lobby by multinational seed company Monsanto saw the gm cotton varieties cleared for commercial application. Does the government really think they can hold out against a much stronger international lobby, particularly when, under the Cartegena protocol, the onus is upon importing countries, to monitor gm products and the issue of labeling is not very clear? Given that the Biodiversity bill is still pending in Parliament, one wonders if this decision to ratify the biosafety protocol is so wise after all.

All this when the Protocol suffers from some significant ambiguities and weaknesses. A major one is that the issue of dispute resolution remains unresolved. The Protocol contains no dispute resolution mechanism of its own and parties may be able take disputes to the wto.

Moreover, given the ignorance among our populace about gmos, the government also has the onerous task of raising awareness about gm products. It must be remembered that it was public mobilisation that led to eu domestic laws on genetically modified foods and which continue to exist. This was the reason that the eu ministers could not agree to weaker terms in Montreal. gm crops hold immense potential, but that can only be realized if their introduction is properly monitored and regulated.

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