The Supreme Court of India (SCI, September 22, 2006) directed the country’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), not to give approvals to genetically modified products until further orders. This has perplexed the biotech community but pleased the anti-biotech lobby, which seems to read too much into this two-week restriction. The SCI’s directive is in consideration of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed on May 1, 2006, seeking a ‘ban on the release of genetically modified organisms/seeds having the potential of causing major health hazards’. The SCI’s directive has been widely reported in the Indian Press (Indo Asian News Service, The Times of India, The HIndu, Financial Express), which would not have happened if the directive were to be against the petitioners.
Fixing October 13, 2006 for the next hearing on the PIL, the SCI stated that ‘we are not inclined to direct stoppage of all field trials at this stage without (considering) the stand of the respondents. At the same time we deem it appropriate to direct GEAC to withhold the approvals till further directions are issued on hearing all concerned’. The SCI’s order would thus not apply to field trials of genetically modified products, which were already approved by the GEAC.
The SCI’s directive is sub judice to comment, but the implications of the petition need to be considered, in public interest.
The petitioners pleaded for a ‘stay against grant of fresh approvals and of all field trials on genetically modified crops, alleging that the policy of the government was to give speedy clearance to genetically modified organisms even before putting in place a mechanism to test their bio-safety value’. The fact is that there is a well-appreciated and robust multi-step mechanism for biosecurity evaluation of genetically engineered (GE) crops in the country.
The petitioners said that the ‘use of technology of genetic engineering and release of GM organisms into the environment would require application of precautionary principle, which mandated that every possible precaution must be taken to ensure that no harmful effects are caused to human and animal health and environment’. This is overstretching the import of the Precuationary Principle (PP), which advises only a cautious approach, and was not intended to block deployment of genetically engineered products altogether on objections not supported by science. Precautionary principle was also not meant to be invoked ad infinitum and ad nauseam.
The petitioners alleged that ‘GE, if allowed to proceed unchecked would change the molecular structure of the world’s food’. This is a highly imaginative and misleading assumption to paint a scary scenario, which does not make any scientific sense. It was further said that ‘if the GEAC’s reckless rush into genetically modified foods were not checked, this process would be the fastest and riskiest experiment anywhere with irreversible impacts on our farmers, their crop choices, our food and health’.
The GEAC is composed of competent experienced agricultural scientists and other experts who know their responsibility and they have been doing their job as per the rule of law. What might have disturbed the anti-agribiotech lobby in India is that the present GEAC is more pro-active and does not dilly-dally, like its predecessor.
The petition is projected as the ‘apprehension of agriculturalists about possible mutilation of domestic seed variety by the onslaught of genetically modified seeds’. All along, the farmers chose what was best for them and discarded thousands of varieties of crops that were in cultivation at the given time. The farmer will continue to exercise a similar choice and if there were no demand for GE varieties, the market forces will push them out. Even when the genetically engineered seed is on the market, the farmer has the freedom to choose the non-GE seed.
The charge that ‘genetically modified products being introduced by some of the MNCs posed serious threat to ecology, crops and human lives’, is emotionalization and sensationalization of the issue stemmed in the bogie of MNC domination and is bereft of any rational science. The Indian public sector institutions have been developing about 39 genetically engineered traits in 23 crops, much more than the private companies.
The petitioners alleged that ‘open field trials of genetically modified Okra, Brinjal and Rice are being conducted in various parts of the country on the basis of the safety tests conducted by the companies and without any independent verification of their safety claims about GM seeds’.
Throughout the world, the product developers provide the basic biosecurity data based on existing governmental guidelines. They are verified and supplemented by public institutions and/or accredited private establishments. In India there are no independent private institutions to conduct biosecuirty evaluations. The Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Government of India, is now in the process of putting such a mechanism in place. Currently, the independent public sector research institutions of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) conduct biosecurity evaluations.
The advice of the SCI to the Government to ‘consider associating independent experts in the field with the GEAC’ is not an issue with the GEAC, as they had earlier involved other outside experts. The anti-tech activists too were given an opportunity to present their point of view before the GEAC.
While the final decision of the SCI is anybody’s guess at the moment, waiting for it is inevitable.
Dr Rao is an agricultural biotechnology expert who uses his skills to highlight the potential benefits of genetically modified food. To read more about Dr Rao, go to http://www.fbaeblog.org/