India was one of the first Asian countries to invest in agricultural biotechnology research and to set up a biosafety system to regulate the approval of genetically modified (GM) crops. Despite the Government of India’s acknowledged interest in encouraging growth in the biotechnology sector and the increasing number of research initiatives in the public and private domains, the approval of new applications of transgenic crops has been rather slow.
The country has only approved one GM crop, Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton, which was planted on 1.3 million hectares by 1 million farmers in 2006. There are several other GM crops and traits in the biosafety regulatory pipeline. At the same time, an increasing number of ministries and government departments are getting involved in biosafety, marketing, and trade regulations. As a result, the Indian agribiotech sector is in a transition phase both in terms of research applications and the regulatory framework.
In this context, the International Food Policy Research Institute under the South Asia Biosafety Program (SABP) organized a policy dialogue on August 24 and 25, 2006, in New Delhi, India, in collaboration with the Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS). The dialogue was designed to provide a platform for national and international economic experts and important Indian stakeholders to discuss economic considerations related to biosafety and biotechnology in India. These proceedings are a summary of the discussions held during the dialogue.
The policy dialogue highlighted the following six critical economic issues and associated recommendations on biotechnology and biosafety regulations in India:
1) The cost and stringency of the current regulatory system and its impact on the overall growth of the sector calls for further examination.
2) The relevance and economic feasibility of the proposed mandatory labeling regulation of GM food and feed in India is largely questioned by policy specialists and economists.
3) The compliance with and enforcement of post-release regulations have to be addressed, particularly with regard to insect-resistance management and illegal seeds.
4) The existing research and application competence (including capacity for developing crops of Indian priority) and consumers’ and farmers’ ability to understand and adopt agricultural biotechnology need to be strengthened.
5) There is a lack of clarity on GM food import approval, and segregation strategies for non-GM crops should be encouraged to maintain all export opportunities while allowing the beneficial use of safe GM technology for Indian farmers.
6) The limited clarity, transparency, and leadership in the regulatory procedure mean that better coordination is required across all ministries to adapt policies to manage environment, agriculture, consumer, and trade issues together.
More generally, the conference revealed the need for a better convergence of the Indian government’s overall objectives on agricultural biotechnology in terms of the agricultural development process, the federal regulatory framework, and the capacity needed to provide safe access to approved biotechnology innovations to Indian farmers.
As a response to these critical policy issues, the Government of India should consider conducting policy research to evaluate the benefits and costs of different biosafety and biotechnology regulatory options for transgenic crops and the products derived thereof, in order to maximize the economic potential of agricultural biotechnology for all Indian farmers and consumers in a safe and responsible manner.