New Delhi: A government committee on Friday cleared the way for companies to conduct confined field trials on 11 varieties of controversial genetically modified (GM) crops, but said the trials will have to be cleared by the respective state governments first.
The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), which met after a year on Friday, cleared proposals to conduct GM trials on four varieties of rice, two each of wheat and cotton, and one each of maize, sorghum and groundnut.
“All these cases were for revalidation,” a senior environment ministry official said after a meeting of GEAC.
“Their validation had expired since the last time and these companies will now have to go to the states to get an NOC (no-objection certificate) before they can begin these trials,” said the official, requesting anonymity.
Monsanto Co., the US-based seed company, was among the firms whose proposals were cleared by GEAC. A Monsanto spokesperson said the company was not in a position to comment as it had not seen the minutes of the GEAC meeting.
According to the brief of the last meeting of GEAC held on 23 March 2013, there were 60 pending cases of field trials that were to have been considered on Friday. “We will consider the rest of them in the next meeting on 25 April,” the official quoted above said.
GEAC, in its last meeting, had recommended granting approval to confined field trials of GM crops. The minutes of the meeting say that out of the 25 cases it considered, the committee approved 24.
Following the committee’s recommendation, environment minister M. Veerappa Moily on 27 February gave his approval to confined field trials of GM crops.
Former environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan had put these trials on hold and her predecessor Jairam Ramesh had introduced a clause that companies which get the go-ahead from GEAC will have to approach state governments since agriculture is a state subject.
Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab and Haryana have allowed confined field trials in the past, but Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, West Bengal and Rajasthan have said they will not allow them.
Moily justified his move saying the file with GEAC recommendation had been lying in Natarajan’s office for nearly a year. “Ongoing research and development has to be allowed,” he added.
Moily also said there was no embargo placed by the Supreme Court. The apex court, which is hearing a case on the matter, set up a six-member technical expert committee (TEC) in 2012, which suggested an indefinite moratorium on such trials unless shortcomings in the regulatory process were plugged. But one member gave a dissenting note opposing the moratorium.
The apex court then told the government to clarify its stand on the issue, prompting agriculture minister Sharad Pawar to declare in February that the government will file an affidavit in the court seeking permission for field trials of GM crops.
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for 14 April.
GM crops are controversial because their opponents say they can harm agriculture, the environment and human health.
Rajesh Krishnan, convenor of the Coalition for a GM-Free India, an informal network of organizations and individuals campaigning against the introduction of GM crops in India, said GEAC’s Friday clearance was both “anti-people and anti-science”.
“It is inappropriate because the TEC had also recommended against field trials and the hearing in the court is still on. This is an undue haste in clearing field trials before Supreme Court hears the matter,” he said.
The environment ministry official, however, said that enough checks and guidelines had been put in place to ensure that the trials are safe.
The brief of GEAC’s last meeting says that all GM crops field trials in India are subject to norms that are as stringent as international norms.
These norms include conducting the trials in isolation and at a distance from other fields with similar crops; planting biological barriers of border rows all around the experimental plot; erecting physical barriers around the experimental plot; and designating a lead scientist who would be responsible for conducting the trial.
Post-harvest restrictions include burning the border rows and leftover plants and plant parts from the entire experimental plot, and not using the trial sites for planting the same plant species.
The Association of Biotech Led Enterprises-Agriculture Group (ABLE-AG) welcomed the move. “While no official information is available, we have learnt that the GEAC has cleared 11 cases which were pending for revalidation. We welcome this and hope that the rest of the applications too shall be expeditiously cleared,” Ram Kaundinya, chairman of ABLE-AG, said in an email.
Krishnan of the Coalition for a GM-Free India said: “There is enough scientific evidence to say that field trials can contaminate both food and seed supply chains and that could lead to impact on human health and environment.
He added this was the first time that GM field trials for wheat have been allowed in the country.