NOTE: The clearest account to date of the Supreme Court decision and its aftermath.
Supreme Court Upholds Importance Of Biosafety
By Kavitha Kuruganti
Countercurrents.org, 21 May 2007 http://www.countercurrents.org/kavitha210507.htm
In the orders passed after the May 8th hearing in the GMOs PIL filed by Aruna Rodrigues and three others, the Supreme Court of India clearly upheld once again the importance of biosafety when it comes to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The Union of India applied for a vacation of the Court's orders in September 2006 which directed the GEAC (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, the apex regulatory authority in India) "to withhold (any) approvals till further directions are issued".
In September, the Court was not inclined to stop ongoing field trials which included 90 Multi-Location Trials (MLTs), 32 experimental seed production, 18 strip trials and 5 pollen flow studies for a variety of crops these included Rice, Potato, Okra, Tomato, Groundnut, Brinjal, Cauliflower, Cabbage, Mustard, Castor, Corn and Sorghum in addition to GM cotton. The GEAC's meeting minutes between December 2006 - February 2007 showcase the inability of the apex regulatory authority to keep track of where the field trials are happening if field trial locations are not known, how monitoring was taking place of either the efficacy of the technology or the biosafety aspects related to conducting the trials was not answered in any forum by the regulators so far.
As sowings for Kharif 2007 draw close, the GM 'promoter-regulators' of the country along with the industry rushed to the Supreme Court praying for a vacation of the September orders, arguing that adequate framework exists to regulate GMOs in the country. The petitioners had enough evidence built to show that on the scientific front as well as the institutional front, the biosafety regime in India is seriously lacking and that field trials in a business-as-usual mode were going to jeopardize our environment irreversibly through contamination.
On May 8th 2007, the Supreme Court heard the petitioners (and the impleadment applications by farmers and rice exporters in support of the petition) and the respondents (the regulators as well as the biotech seed industry associations who had impleaded recently) in a nearly-daylong hearing. In its Orders at the end of the day, the Court did not grant the Government of India its prayer for a vacation on the ban on field trials. Instead, it clarified that if any trials are going on or are to go on pursuant to approvals granted between 2/5/2006 and 22/9/2006, these trials would be subject to additional conditionalities that the GEAC should ensure that there is no contamination from these trials to other fields close-by. In all the trials which are being conducted, the name of the scientist who will be responsible and other details for all aspects of the trials should be reported to the GEAC and there should be a regular supervision by them. The Court also ordered that prior to bringing out the GM material from the greenhouse for conduct of open field trials, the approved institution should submit a validated, event-specific test protocol at an LOD of at least 0.01% to detect and confirm that there has been no contamination. The Court also asked to see the toxicity and allergenicity data, if any, related to Bt Cotton while allowing GEAC to permit commercial releases for four approved species of GM cotton. However, it ordered that no further GM cotton species be approved. By these historic orders, the Supreme Court has once again upheld the importance of biosafety issues related to GM crops.
What was surprising to see was the alacrity by which the Ministry of Environment & Forests, housing the GEAC, put out a press release the next day which misreports the Court's orders in an irresponsible fashion as a vacation of the September 2006 orders. The reality is quite the contrary. Field trials, if any flowing out of approvals during May and September 2006, will be under stricter conditions.
In addition to the Court's orders, GEAC, under pressure from farmers' unions and civil society groups had already announced that field trial applications will be considered only if the applicant announces beforehand where the exact location of each such trial would be and with the prior written consent of the Panchayat in whose jurisdiction such a trial is proposed to be taken up. Further, the DBT and GEAC have also announced that no GM Rice experimentation will take place in the Basmati belt of India. It is however not clear how they intend to prevent GM rice seed being tested elsewhere in the country from reaching the basmati belt, given their pathetic history of regulating illegal Bt Cotton proliferation from Gujarat.
Meanwhile, there are various developments against GM crops in different states of the country. In Tamil Nadu, after the PMK (Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, Union Health Minister represents this Party), it is now the turn of AIADMK to take a formal stand against GM crops. In a massive rally in Coimbatore on May 5th, several legislators and parliamentarians belonging to AIADMK demanded that the Central and Tamil Nadu state governments ban GM crops.
In Andhra Pradesh, the government is refusing to compromise on the pricing issue related to Bollgard II and is insisting on allowing sales only if the seed is priced at Rs. 750/ a packet. Further, the animal husbandry department here recommended the stoppage of sales of Bt Cotton seeds until it investigates into the phenomenon of toxicity to animals after grazing on Bt Cotton fields.
Elsewhere, after the Chattisgarh government, it is now the turn of the West Bengal government to order an inquiry into the field trials that had happened in the state during Kharif 2006. The Chattisgarh government, through a formal inquiry, pointed out several objectionable violations in Mahyco's GM Rice and GM Okra trials in Raipur last year.
All in all, despite some misleading and gloating headlines and editorials in several newspapers, the biotech industry and the GM regulators have an uphill task ahead in the coming year, having the Supreme Court, the state governments and various political parties holding them accountable, unlike in the past.