Activists prod govt to release data from GM mustard trials

Activists alleged that the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee adopted a biased process to approve commercialization of genetically modified mustard


On Monday, GEAC, the regulator for approving transgenic products, placed in the public domain a safety assessment report prepared by a subcommittee. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
On Monday, GEAC, the regulator for approving transgenic products, placed in the public domain a safety assessment report prepared by a subcommittee. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

New Delhi: Alleging that the environment ministry’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) adopted a biased process to approve commercialization of genetically modified (GM) mustard, a coalition of activists from across India has sought the immediate release of full data regarding trials of GM crops into the public domain.

Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), a nationwide informal network of more than 400 organizations drawn from 20 states, in a letter to GEAC said Monday’s development “reveals once again how the regulators have functioned unscientifically and high-handedly right from the beginning in the discharge of their duties”.

“The fact that no minutes of the civil society group’s presentations on 18 July were prepared or shared yet and no response to the points raised by us is forthcoming shows that you were never serious about rigorous scientific scrutiny of the benefits or risks of GM mustard,” Kuruganti’s letter, reviewed by Mint, stated.

On Monday, GEAC, the regulator for approving transgenic products, placed in the public domain a safety assessment report prepared by a subcommittee which said that GM mustard technology has been found to be “safe for food/feed and environment” following an assessment of detailed bio-safety data submitted by the technology developer, Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants, Delhi University.

GEAC will take a final decision on allowing commercialization after it receives comments from the general public and stakeholders on the safety assessment report. Comments must reach GEAC by 5 October.

The GM mustard in question—DMH-11—has been developed by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants at Delhi University. If it gets the green light from the GEAC, it will become the first GM food crop to be commercially cultivated in India. Currently, only GM cotton is cultivated in the country.

Kuruganti along with a group of agriculture scientists, ecologists, farmers and consumer rights activists had on 18 July made detailed presentations to GEAC to present evidence on the suspected hazards posed by GM mustard and vowed to step up opposition to any possible approval to the variety.

The data was made public only after the CIC on 12 August rebuked the ministry for not releasing the data, saying “any attempt to postpone or delay the disclosure will block the public discussion” on GM mustard.

In April, too, the CIC had pulled up the environment ministry over its lack of transparency on trials of GM crops and directed it to make public all information, including bio-safety data, related to the field trials of GM mustard .

A senior environment ministry official, who did not wish to be identified, said they have received the letter from ASHA.

“No decision will be taken in haste. We will take a decision after considering all views,” the official said.

Monday’s development has left activists furious with the Anil Madhav Dave-led environment ministry.

Kuruganti pointed out that only the AFES (Assessment of Food and Environmental Safety) document has been put out, which is not the same as the bio-safety dossier, and does not have details of the study protocols or data generated, on which feedback is being sought.

“The sub-committee of course had concluded in this document that consumption of GM mustard is safe for human and animal health, and that environmental release may not pose any risk to biodiversity or the agri-ecosystem. Before reaching such a conclusion, the data should have been put out for independent scientific scrutiny. However, this was not done, and such a conclusion was drawn after two meetings in 15 days’ time,” she added.

She drew attention to the fact that to access the full bio-safety dossier and data, GEAC has asked people from all over the country to come to the ministry’s office in Delhi with a prior appointment.

“It is not clear if data will be shared even then or if it is expected that the citizen should memorise everything and come back. This is a violation of the Central Information Commission (CIC) orders and also contrary to what GEAC itself has been promising to the CIC in the hearings of an ongoing case. After forcing citizens to come all the way to Delhi in case they want to participate in these feedback processes, only 30 days’ time is being given for feedback. What is the rationale for this,” asked Kuruganti in her letter.

“All these are an indication of the biased, pre-concluded processes that the GEAC is adopting. We write to you now to demand that the full bio-safety data be put out into the public domain immediately if this feedback process has to be a meaningful and scientific process. Further, at least 90 days’ time should be given for feedback from public. We also demand that you look into all feedback that is provided and not try and curtail it to formats that are conveniently created to keep out important questions and queries,” Kuruganti demanded.

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