Modern biotechnology, involving the use of recombinant DNA (“rDNA”) technologies, has emerged as a powerful tool with applications in healthcare and agriculture. New plant varieties developed using rDNA techniques, commonly referred to as genetically engineered (“GE”), genetically modified (“GM”) or transgenic plants, have and are being developed to enhance productivity, reduce dependence on agricultural chemicals, modify the inherent properties of crops, and enhance the nutritional value of foods and livestock feeds.
Genetically modified food crops are key to increasing agricultural production and enhancing food security in India. Such crops are not new to India. Genetically modified cotton is commercially cultivated in India, and according to currently available information, twelve crops (of which eleven are food crops) are under various stages of development. While genetically modified crops have been successfully used in India — accounting for about 85% of the cotton grown — their use for food crops is controversial. This article describes the governmental approval requirements in India for the introduction of genetically modified food crops; how the process is expected to unfold in practice, based on experiences in other recent cases; and suggests strategic steps that an applicant should consider in applying for regulatory approval.
Regulatory Requirements and Approval Process
Several governmental authorities regulate the manufacture, import, use, research, and release of genetically modified organisms (“GMOs”) in India. These authorities operate at the central (federal), state, and local (district) level. The approvals required from these authorities often are interdependent and one approval may be a pre-requisite for others.
The apex authority is the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (“GEAC”), a multi-ministerial body located in the Ministry of Environment and Forests (“MOEF”). The GEAC has the authority to permit the use of GMOs and its byproducts for commercial application, including their large-scale production and release into the environment. GEAC approval is based in part on the clearance given by the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (“RCGM”) in the Department of Bio-Technology (“DBT”). In addition, a new regulatory body, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (“FSSAI”), has been empowered to regulate the safety aspects and approval process for GM foods and is in the process of framing rules for this purpose.
The regulatory requirements for cultivation of GM crops are set forth in the Rules for the Manufacture, Use, Import, Export and Storage of Hazardous Micro-Organisms, Genetically Engineered Organisms or Cells, notified on December 5, 1989 (“1989 Rules”). The 1989 Rules define the competent authorities (and their composition) charged with administering the 1989 Rules.
Besides the 1989 Rules, the regulatory framework is supplemented by guidelines and notifications issued by the other governmental authorities having jurisdiction over activities addressed under the 1989 Rules. These effectively add another layer of regulation. The steps in the regulatory approval process are as follows:
- Import of GMOs and/or GM seeds
- Testing and research in contained conditions, depending on the following risk categories:
- Category-I Risk (routine rDNA laboratory experiments in a contained environment)
- Category-II Risk (laboratory and green house or net house experiments in a contained environment)
- Category-III Risk (green house or net house and limited field trials in open field conditions)
- Confined field trials (controlled introduction) at bio-safety research level-I (BRL-I) and BRL-II, as defined in bio-safety guidelines for field trials issued by the RCGM
- Food safety assessment
- Commercial cultivation of GM crops
- Production and sale of GMOs
Regulatory Process in Practice
Despite the guidelines provided in the 1989 Rules and related regulations, in practice, there is significant risk and uncertainty. Key risk areas are outlined below. These are based largely on the challenges faced since 2000 for the introduction of a genetically modified egg plant called Bt Brinjal.
Proceedings continue in the Supreme Court in the Public Interest Litigation (“PIL”) filed in early 2005 seeking to establish a comprehensive, stringent, scientifically rigorous, and transparent bio-safety protocol in the public domain for GMOs, and for every GMO before it is released into the environment. Aruna Rodrigues v. Union of India, Writ Petition (Civil) No. 260 of 2005 (“Bt Brinjal Case”). So far the Court has issued six orders addressing the role and function of the GEAC. The PIL is yet to be ultimately determined, with the most recent order of January 19, 2010 requiring the government to respond in four weeks to the question of what steps the government has taken to protect traditional crops. Details of the government’s reply are not available as of this writing.
Such litigation is primarily brought by non-governmental organizations. Often they are brought ex parte, as a matter of urgency and without notifying the other concerned parties. The obvious immediate consequence of such litigation is delay and uncertainty. Typically, the court initially issues an interim order to maintain the status quo while the parties can be heard. For example, in the Bt Brinjal Case, the Supreme Court initially ordered that the GEAC “withhold approvals until further instructions to be issued by this court on hearing of all concerned.” Bt Brinjal Case, Order dated 22 September 2006. This order had the effect of suspending the grant by GEAC of approvals on all applications pending before it, not just the Bt Brinjal application. The Order was subsequently modified by the court (on an application filed by the government) to allow the continuation of field trials subject to conditions stipulated by the court. Bt Brinjal Case, Order dated 8 May 2007.
The other consequence of such litigation could be the imposition by the court of additional conditions on confined trials in response to concerns expressed by the petitioner and other concerned parties. These additional conditions could adversely affect the overall economics of the GM crop and the timing for its introduction.
Although the GEAC is the designated permitting authority, its decision can be suspended or held in abeyance by the government. Given the past controversy surrounding GM crops, the GEAC is expected as a matter of practice to refer its recommendation to the government (Ministry of Environment and Forests) for a final decision. The outcome of this may be to confirm, suspend or modify the GEAC approval. See MOEF, Report of Minister Shri Jairam Ramesh, 9 February 2010 (“Report of Environment Minister”) (declaring an indefinite moratorium on the release of Bt Brinjal). In view of the public nature of the controversy, the government’s stand in this matter is likely to be dictated by politics as much as scientific considerations.
The regulatory framework for GM crops is evolving. Recent developments are expected to alter existing regulatory requirements. These will most certainly apply to pending applications, but may also affect existing approvals.
- First, the GEAC has been directed by the MOEF to draft a new protocol for the specific tests that will be conducted on GMOs in order to generate public confidence in GM food crops. The Environment Minister has directed that “under no circumstances should there be any hurry or rush” to complete the aforesaid. Report of Environment Minister, paragraph 30. Therefore until such new protocols are issued, there is substantial uncertainty as to the regulatory requirements.
- Second, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, a regulatory body constituted under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 will hence forth regulate the safety assessment and approval process for GM foods. The FSSAI will regulate “food stuff, ingredients in food stuffs and additives including processing aids derived from living modified organisms where the end product is not a living modified organism.” MOEF, Notification No. S.O. 1519(E) dated 23 August 2007. The FSSAI has released for public comment draft rules on “Operationalizing the Regulation of Genetically Modified Foods in India.” The comment period ended on July 14, 2010. The draft clarifies that the research and development, environmental release, and commercialization of GMOs will continue to be governed by the 1989 Rules, and thus will continue to be regulated by the GEAC at MOEF and RCGM in the DBT.
Suggested Strategic Approach
Given the risks described above, an applicant should consider including the following elements in its strategic approach to complying with the regulatory requirements in India. First, due to the uncertainty in the regulatory process and questions as to finality of the GEAC approval, it would be prudent to enter into an “implementation agreement” with the MOEF. Because the financial investment and effort required to commercialize GM crops is substantial, an up-front understanding with the government will help reduce the degree of arbitrariness involved in the application of the regulatory requirements. Implementation agreements are the norm in sectors where a long gestation period is involved and where successful implementation depends on governmental actions and support, such as hydropower projects.
Second, the applicant should consider applying for “in-principle” approval from the GEAC as early in the process as possible. Such approval, although not final or binding, would typically set forth the conditions to be met by the applicant for grant of final approval. MOEF approvals for infrastructure projects are structured in the foregoing manner.
Third, because most public interest litigation is filed by non-governmental organizations (“NGO”), it is prudent for the applicant to be pro-active and manage its relationships with the concerned NGOs.
Navigating the regulatory process for commercialization of GM food crops in India is not for the faint hearted. The road to commercialization has had, and will likely continue to have, many twists and turns. While the government has decided to embrace food produced through bio-technology to feed its citizens, the regulatory decision making process is often influenced more by political pressure from these opposed to bio-technology than by critical and balanced scientific and technological judgment. To help mitigate the resulting delay and uncertainty, it is helpful for businesses entering this sector to approach the government early on and develop a high-level road map for tackling the approval process.
Anand S. Dayal is a partner with Koura & Company, Advocates and Barrister, based in New Delhi, India. Anand received his J.D. cum laude (1992) from Cornell Law School, and is admitted to the bar both in India and the US (NY and DC). He was previously Of Counsel with White & Case and an associate with Chadbourne & Parke and Pillsbury Madison & Sutro. Anand is chairman of the Anti-Corruption Committee of the American Chamber of Commerce in India. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
by Anand S. Dayal