India’s GM regulatory model needs a complete overhaul
It is by now clear that GM crops cause no harm. The Government of India has now confirmed this in the Parliament. On 19 July 2019 in response to question 4441 in the Lok Sabha, the Government said that “There is no scientific evidence to prove that GM crops are unsafe”.
So why do we have this continuing blockage on GM crops? Apart from immediately approving all GM crops, India needs to review its dysfunctional GM regulatory regime.
An overview of the regulatory history of GMOs will help set the context.
When this technology was first discovered, there was huge uncertainty about its impacts. Biotechnology scientists wanted to ensure that the technology was perfectly safe. They assembled at the Asilomar Conference Centre in Pacific Grove, California, in February 1975, and agreed on a set of safety standards that would voluntarily apply to their research.
The Asilomar guidelines and the absence of any safety crisis from GMO experiments helped allay the scientists’ concerns. By the early 1980s, GM crops were ready to be rolled out for commercial use. At that stage, some people raised environmental concerns in the US Congress.
To consider these concerns, the Reagan White House set up working groups which developed three tenets of US biotechnology policy: (1) US policy would focus on the product of GM techniques, not the process itself, (2) only regulation grounded in verifiable scientific risks would be tolerated and (3) GM products are on a continuum with existing products and, therefore, existing statutes are sufficient to review the products. This 1986 statement was called the “Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology” and divided regulatory authority between the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture.
This American approach is consistent with good policymaking. In fact, Ronald Reagan was the first leader in the world to commit (in 1980) to a cost-benefit test for all public policy. This means the government must not regulate unless it is absolutely necessary to do so and the benefits of an intervention exceed its costs. In particular, harm must be demonstrated before any regulation is considered.
This US approach to GM regulation continues till today. GM crops are assessed like any other novel plant or food product by proving a substantial equivalence to existing food products. After thirty years of regulation, there has never been any case of harm. This level of regulation is therefore appropriate.
In contrast, GMOs are placed into the same category into which “hazardous microorganisms” are placed, under India’s Environment Protection Act, 1986. This is patently absurd, given the Government’s admission that GM crops are perfectly safe.
It is possible that Indian lawmakers’ fear psychosis arose from the distortion of GM regulation which occurred after the fall of communism in 1991. At that stage, a new de-facto communist regime was established based on the 1992 Rio Declaration. Article 15 of the Declaration is infamous for introducing the completely irrational precautionary principle, according to which the conception of a cost-benefit test and reason must be dumped in preference to anticipatory regulation without any evidence of harm.
Article 15 is the basis of new communism in which politicians and bureaucrats who are hungry for power cook up imaginary goblins, scare people and children and gain extraordinary powers. After it was introduced this principle was gladly adopted in Europe and socialist countries like India.
But this is an extraordinarily harmful approach to policymaking. It turns the basic principle of regulation upside-down. Instead of regulating for proven harm, everything is prohibited unless proven safe. This is equivalent to changing the burden of proof in a trial from the prosecutor to the accused. It amounts to the accused proving that he is “good”, instead of the prosecutor proving any harm he may have caused. This obviously violates the most basic principles of the Enlightenment.
This approach has hugely contaminated the policy-making process. In the case of GM technology, a swarm of ignorant people, ranging from the leftists all the way to the extreme “right” have descended on India’s corridors of power to sabotage science.
But they forget the key point: that there is no problem here in the first place. Not only did the GEAC in 2010 confirm the safety of Bt-brinjal, but the government has also admitted today, in 2019, that GM crops are safe. Any uncertainty which existed fifty years ago in this area has long dissipated.
There is only one cure for this disease of over-regulation: deregulation. The Indian regulatory regime for GM crops must be recast on the lines of America’s largely self-regulatory regime. Any regulation beyond that level is unnecessary and ends up harming farmers, scientists, and – most importantly – the consumers, who are deprived of better and cheaper food.
Unless we switch back to proven methods of the regulation (to prevent actual proven harm) and abandon the precautionary principle, this drama will go on forever, causing multi-generational harm to science and to human prosperity and progress.
I suspect that the very existence of India’s onerous regulatory regime has fanned the flames of fear. After all, if GM is classified by the government as “hazardous” (even though it is entirely safe) then people would naturally tend to be afraid. Once the technology is deregulated, this fear will disappear into thin air just as ghosts and goblins disappear in the light of day.
It is true that there are a few minor negative externalities in this area which may need to be regulated. I’ll discuss them in a separate article.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.