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Dec. 14, 2010

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Dec. 14, 2010

Close on the heels of the BT-brinjal controversy that had put the genetically modified (GM) brinjal trials on the back burner, GM crop is making a comeback in Bengal, this time in the form of paddy. Calcutta University (CU) has been given a go-ahead to conduct field trials of GM rice at the Rice Research Station (RRS), Chinsurah. Experts, however, fear that the new variety might wipe out the 1200-odd existing rice varieties conserved at the rice station.

CU got the permission from the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) on November 11 to "conduct trials of rice (Oryza sativa L) containing gene for high iron content. The trials will be conducted at two seasons at Rice Research Station, Chinsurah".

However, GEAC has a condition. The university has to maintain an isolation distance of 200 metres (either to keep the area vacant or to grow any crop other than rice) around the trial plots to avoid genetic contamination of rice germplasm (rice variety) being maintained there.

The former dean, faculty of agriculture, at Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya and former member of state agriculture commission, T K Bose, fears that a risk remains, as was witnessed in several parts of the country. "First, the recommended isolation distance would cover a large area of the farm where no rice could be cultivated for two seasons. Secondly, the trials of the new rice variety might contaminate the germplasms of the existing rice variety," said Bose. He pointed to reports of such contamination elsewhere in the country due to lapses in bio-diversity protocols.

The West Bengal Biodiversity Board isn't in the know of things. "I am not aware of the development. I have to get the facts first," said research officer Soumendra Ghosh. Agriculture director Sarthak Burman had a similar statement. "I really do not know that such trials have been proposed at RRS. Let me first gather information about it before commenting on it," he said.

RRS joint director Dr Chinmoy Kundu said: "It is still at a premature stage. But whatever is going to happen would conform to biodiversity safety norms."

The apathy is palpable. The state government is yet to form the statutory bodies provided under the Environment Protection Act, 1986 the state biotechnology coordination committee under the chief secretary and the district-level committee under the district magistrate, said T K Bose.

Former CU vice-chancellor and chairman of the state agriculture commission, R N Bose, is keeping his fingers crossed. "The safety clause on paper is not sufficient. The rice station in Chinsurah does not have enough space to have a 200-metre isolation distance on its four sides. The loss will never be compensated if such trials are conducted there. Why RSS of all places?" he questioned.

Agriculture expert Anshuman Das smelt a rat in the entire plan. "I don't find any need for such trials when we have a large number of leafy vegetables with high iron-content," he said. "We already have a number of rice varieties with high iron content, such as Halud Gati," said agriculture scientist Anupam Paul. "So the very trial is unnecessary and a desperate attempt to enter the agricultural field through the back door," Das added.

GM foodgrain is banned across the world. In fact, the ministry of commerce has banned any trial of GM crop in the Basmati-growing area of our country. The reason: even 0.5% of contamination would run the risk of cancellation of export of Basmati, worth Rs 5,000 crore annually.

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