New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday lifted an eight-month ban on field trials of genetically-modified food crops, with some caveats.
Currently, only four varieties of genetically-modified (GM) cotton have been approved by the Centre’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) for commercial cultivation.
In May 2006, GEAC allowed field trials on genetically-modified plants such as brinjal, potato, tomato, okra and groundnut.
But these were halted by a Supreme Court bench, headed by Justice Y.K. Sabharwal, who disallowed the trials until a final decision was taken on a petition filed by Aruna Rodrigues, an independent activist, seeking a moratorium on GM crops.
While the text of the latest ruling will only be released on Wednesday, Prashant Bhushan, counsel for the petitioner, called the court’s verdict “encouraging.”
That’s because one of the riders for conducting future field trials would require the company to disclose a detailed report of the toxicity and allergenicity of the GM-crops being cultivated. “If not RTI (Right to Information), we can at least glean information from the Supreme Court on the results of these tests,” said Divya Raghunandan, a campaigner with Greenpeace, which has been trying to obtain data on GM-crop trials.
Raghunandan’s RTI application was mostly denied by the department of biotechnology, which is responsible for granting approvals.
The other conditions imposed by the three-member bench, headed by Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan, are: increasing the isolation distance between the GM-planted fields and regular fields to at least 200 metres from 20 metres, since activists claimed regular crops were being contaminated, or pollinated, by GM crops. Such contamination affects exports as many countries have strict norms on contamination. The court also ruled that a designated scientist would be made responsible for ensuring that all the conditions were complied with during the field trials of GM seeds.
Said R.K. Sinha, executive director, National Seed Association of India, a consortium of seed-industry bodies: “It’s a great relief that this order has come, as stalled research activities can now begin again. However, I can comment on this only after I read the literal wording of the judgement.”
Rodrigues’ main complaint, highlighted in her petition, was that GEAC was “unfairly” constituted, noting that there are members in the government body who are also part of independent organizations that promote GM crops, such as the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications.