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New Delhi: India’s Supreme Court asked that an independent expert view be part of the approval process for genetically modified, or GM, crops and suggested that the government set out clear guidelines on approvals for trials of the same.

A three-judge bench led by Chief Justice of India K.G. Balakrishnan directed the ministry of environment and forest, or MoEF, to include scientists P.M. Bhargava and M.S. Swaminathan as “special invitees" at the meetings of Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (Geac).

Geac, which functions under MoEF, is a statutory body constituted under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, and is responsible for the approval, review, monitoring and investigation of activities involving hazardous micro-organisms and recombinants besides genetically engineered organisms and products.

The Supreme Court had, on 4 September, lifted an eight-month ban on field trials of GM food crops.

At present, four varieties of genetically modified cotton have been approved by Geac for commercial production, and genetically modified brinjal, potato, tomato, okra and groundnut are allowed for field trials.

The order on Wednesday came pursuant to the hearing of a petition filed by activist Aruna Rodrigues in 2005 seeking a ban on GM crops. It was heard along with a similar petition filed by Gene Campaign, a non-profit organization.

Prashant Bhushan, counsel for Rodrigues, clarified that his client was not against research on GM crops but opposed to the open field trials that would lead to contamination of soil and other crops and, in turn, result in irreversible damage to the environment.

His main contention was that since there is no conclusive evidence so far on the effects of cultivation of GM crops, the trials should be conducted inside green houses so that harmful substances would not be released into the environment.

Bhushan also argued that Geac had vested interest by alleging that the co-chairman of Geac, C.D. Mayee, was on the board of directors of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.

He told the court that this was “an organization led by bio-tech companies in the US with an agenda to promote GM food production across the world".

The main thrust of the arguments by Sanjay Parikh, counsel for Gene Campaign, was that since an “ad-hoc procedure" was being followed by Geac while granting approvals for trials on GM crops, it must lay down fixed guidelines to streamline the process as per the bio-safety guidelines of the Cartagena protocol to which India is a signatory.

The bench also asked the Geac to consider this suggestion made by Gene Campaign.

Kavitha Kuruganti of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, a lobby group for organic farmers, says: “The Supreme Court is not addressing the basic concern raised by the petitioners, including 6 million farmers, who have impleaded in this case, through their unions."

Referring to the inclusion of Swaminathan, who has raked up the issues of herbicide tolerant plants and biodiversity concerns in light of GM food in his task force reports, Kuruganti said, “It will be interesting to see his take on this. But Bhargava or Swaminathan sitting through these meetings won’t stop the problem."

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