New Delhi: In a severe blow to the future of genetically modified (GM) food crops in the country, a high-level committee appointed by the Supreme Court has recommended stopping all ongoing open field trials on such crops for 10 years until a new set of conditions is enforced.
In spirit, the committee’s recommendations are similar to those made by former environment minister Jairam Ramesh, who’d recommended a moratorium on the commercial release of Bt brinjal. These fresh recommendations, however, are more significant as they constitute a key input to the Supreme Court of India, which has been hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by a clutch of independent scientists as well as activist organizations.
Key recommendations by the committee include a reassessment of the biosafety data that is generated by field trials; ensuring there is no conflict of interest (that is, those tasked with evaluating the biosafety of GM crops are themselves not stakeholders in promoting such crops); a ban on outsourcing or subcontracting field trials; and ensuring that crops being considered for testing be evaluated by rodent-feeding trials.
The recommendations are significant because the committee was peopled by scientists, said Kavitha Kuruganti of the Coalition for a GM-Free India.
“The committee had scientists from the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and the National Institute of Nutrition, and the decision has followed an extensive review process,” said Kuruganti, “But as of today, field trials will be illegal only if the Supreme Court says so.”
She added that further deliberations on the case are expected on 29 October.
India’s seed industry, several constituents of which have bet on the future of GM crops, described the recommendations as “adverse”.
“I haven’t seen this report and know no details. But if this is the recommendation, that could have adverse implications for the industry,” said V. Ram Kaundinya, managing director, Advanta India Ltd, one of India’s largest agrochemical companies with interests in seeds and biotechnology.
The committee’s recommendations also come on the back of an August parliamentary panel report criticizing the introduction of Bt cotton as well as tests on GM food crops.
The panel’s study on Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops—Prospects and Effects was among the most extensive studies conducted by a parliamentary standing committee. The panel received 467 memorandums and 14,862 documents, and reviewed evidence given by 50 organizations during its 27 sittings on the subject.
While the development was discouraging, there will be further debate, said another seed industry executive.
“It’s bad news, but there will be more hearings,” said K.K. Narayanan, managing director, Metahelix Life Sciences Ltd, which has interests in both GM cotton as well as GM rice. “I don’t think it’s curtains for the industry yet.”
A Supreme Court bench headed by former chief justice S.H. Kapadia had in May sought a report within three months from an expert committee on whether there should be a blanket ban on field trials for GM crops, and if not, had asked it to detail a procedure to establish the safety of such crops.
The orders came on a PIL filed by non-governmental organization Gene Campaign and activist Aruna Rodrigues, who had sought a complete moratorium on field trials for GM crops.