Is there compelling reason for environmental release of GM Mustard? SC asks Centre

New Delhi: Amid concerns over environmental contamination due to genetically modified crops, the Supreme Court on Thursday asked the Centre whether there was any compelling reason for the environmental release of GM Mustard failing which the country will be doomed.

The top court said Indian farmers, unlike their western counterparts, are not literate and they do not understand about genes and mutations notwithstanding events like ‘Krishi Melas’ and ‘Krishi Darshan’ which is the ground reality.

The Centre told the top court that opposition by activists, experts and scientists to GM crops is “ideological” rather than based on scientific rationale.

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On October 25, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) under the Union environment ministry approved the environmental release of transgenic mustard hybrid DMH-11 and the parental lines containing barnase, barstar and bar genes so that they can be used for developing new hybrids.

A bench of Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and BV Nagarathna told Attorney General R Venkataramani, appearing for the Centre, that the question which needs to be answered is whether with the environmental release of the GM mustard seeds there will be any irreversible consequence.

“What we want to know is whether in Indian conditions is there any compelling reason for environmental release of GM mustard, that if we do not do it now, we will be doomed or if you need to have more safeguards and can release it at a later stage,” the bench said.

Justice Nagarathna said, “We are not on ideology. Our farmers are not like farmers of western countries as far as literacy and awareness is concerned about genes and mutations. No matter how many ‘Krishi Melas’ (agriculture fairs) and ‘Krishi Darshan’ (a programme on agriculture broadcast on DD Kisan channel) we have. That’s the ground reality. We have to look at everything in entirety.”

Venkataramani said the question is not about compulsion but the process, and the government has followed all regulatory process as per the framework recommended by the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) appointed by the court.

“There is nothing problematic as far as process or regulatory framework is concerned. I have demonstrated that all such processes were followed which were recommended by the TEC. We are not blind to the Indian conditions. Question is why are they (petitioners) against it? They have certain anxieties and concerns that is understandable but they are asking why get into this at all. This is an ideological position,” he said.

The bench noted it is not saying the government is having any problem but it is examining the report of the TEC, which has said in its report that the GM crop is not suited for Indian conditions.

“Experts have given their reasons, which as per you (government) is ideological. Of course, what they say is not the final word and not binding upon the government. It is just their opinion. Government needs to tell us what is its point of view on the opinions expressed by the experts,” the bench said.

The AG contended the TEC made the recommendations to the government that steps need to be taken for risk management and creating a regulatory framework. On the other hand, they gave a report that GM crops are not suited for Indian conditions, which was not among the terms of reference given by this court to the panel, he said.

“What the government has done over a period of time is what the court asked the committee to do as per the terms of reference, which is creation of a regulatory framework. The October 25 decision is part of the process followed for over a decade,” Venkataramani said.

At the outset, the AG took the court through various processes that have been followed and the sequence of dates and meetings held by the GEAC and other panels and said GM mustard has not been developed as a herbicide tolerant technology and is meant only for hybrid seed production, which gives higher yields in comparison to traditionally bred varieties.

The bench asked Venkataramani to address the court on the report of the parliamentary standing committee besides that of the TEC saying, “We will not venture into the core scientific area as we are not the experts and will only focus on the order of October 25 which is under challenge”.

The top court is hearing separate pleas of activist of Aruna Rodrigues and NGO ‘Gene Campaign’ seeking a moratorium on the release of any genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment pending a comprehensive, transparent and rigorous bio-safety protocol in the public domain conducted by agencies of independent expert bodies the results of which are made public.

On Wednesday, advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for Rodrigues, submitted that the seeds of GM mustard have started germinating after their environmental release and before the plants start flowering in a few weeks they must be uprooted to prevent the environment from getting irreversibly contaminated.

The hearing remained inconclusive and will continue on December 7.

At a meeting on October 18, the GEAC, the country’s regulator for genetically modified organisms, recommended the “environmental release of mustard hybrid DMH-11 for its seed production and testing as per existing ICAR guidelines and other extant rules/regulations before commercial release”.

The transgenic mustard hybrid DMH-11 has been developed by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP) at Delhi University.

The government has so far approved only one GM crop- Bt cotton- for commercial cultivation in 2002.

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