New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday asked the Union government to respond to a plea seeking a ban on the release of genetically modified, or GM, organisms into the environment and import of GM food products until an independent body is set up to promote a transparent bio-safety protocol.
Legal wrangle: A woman collects cotton pods. Currently, four varieties of GM cotton have been approved by Geac for commercial production. Photograph: Aijaz Rahi / AP
Admitting an application by activist Aruna Rodrigues, a bench headed by Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan issued a notice to the Union government, directing it to file its response. Rodrigues had asked the court to direct the government to set up an independent institution of “international standards of accreditation, for all aspects of work connected to GM organisms, including risk assessment and testing for contamination”.
The bench was hearing the petition by Rodrigues filed in 2005, seeking a ban on GM crops, along with a similar petition by Delhi-based non-profit Gene Campaign.
Since the apex court lifted an eight-month ban on field trials of GM food crops in May last year, the petitioners have been urging transparency in tests and approvals for GM crop trials.
In February, the court had asked the government to invite two scientists, P.M. Bhargava and M.S. Swaminathan, to the meetings of genetic engineering approval committee, or Geac, an agency of the ministry of environment and forests, that approves, reviews, monitors and investigates activities involving hazardous microorganisms and recombinants besides GM organisms and products.
Currently, four varieties of GM cotton are approved by Geac for commercial production and GM brinjal, potato, tomato, okra and groundnut are allowed for field trials.
The application states that what transpired in Geac meetings attended by the two independent experts reveals an “alarming picture of the manner in which clearances have been given for environmental releases of GM organisms.”
It also highlights Bhargava’s suggestions to the Geac that India should take a cue from Switzerland, which in June put a moratorium on GM organisms till 2012, and carry on research on GM organisms after imposing a five-year ban.
Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for Rodrigues, told the court the Geac has failed to post data on the toxicity and allergic potential of GM plant varieties undergoing trial on its website as per the court’s directions in April.
The court will take up the case again in September.