Will they, won’t they or might they? In spite of a report filed by a panel of Indian agriculture experts calling for the government to impose a moratorium on open field trials of GM crops, the Supreme Court (SC)—which commissioned the report—has refused to restrain the government from going ahead with the controversial policy.
A panel of two senior justices indicated that they agreed with the possibility of contamination of non-GM food, but hinted against the idea of putting the open field trials on ice for 10 years, as the report suggested. They also indicated that they didn’t consider it appropriate to postpone the trials during the rabi—or post-monsoon—harvest.
"I don't think that it is possible for the court to postpone the sowing of the rabi crops," said Justice Swatanter Kumar as the panel rejected a motion to pass an interim order restraining the government from going ahead with trials for the time being.
However, the judges said they would examine the report, researched by the SC’s Technical Expert Committee (TEC) on November 7 to consider their next move.
Moratorium and more
The report called for a stop to all field trials, the outsourcing of field trials be banned and representation on regulatory bodies to be expanded.
It also recommended safety dossiers of all GM crops approved for trials, and those in the pipeline to be reviewed by independent bio-safety experts. It expressed concern over reports sweeping problematic safety data under the carpet, and also suggested involving international experts in the exercise.
However, leading biotechnologists and agricultural scientists used a forum organised by the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education (FBAE) hit out at the TEC’s findings, claiming that the report was “biased” and “detrimental”.
Science in doubt
“TEC claims to have consulted various scientists, experts and NGOs, but the report submitted to the SC seems to rely entirely on the views of a select group of scientists and activists who oppose agri-biotech, ignoring all the others,” accused Prof C Kameswara Rao, executive secretary of the FBAE.
The general feeling at the meeting was that the TEC had gone beyond its mandate and made sweeping recommendations without taking into account the science behind the methods used in India, which it said are similar to those in more advanced countries.
According to Dr TM Manjunath, an agricultural biotechnologist: “Bt cotton has been extensively used as various spray formulations to control a variety of insect pests for over 50 years in many countries, and in transgenic crops for over 16 years, and has not caused any adverse effects. Indian Bt cotton farmers are among the biggest beneficiaries of modern plant biotechnology. They have demonstrated to the world the potential of this technology.”
Last week, FoodNavigator-Asia reported how farmers in the northern state of Haryana, where field trials are taking place, and agricultural unions across the country had risen up in protest against GM crop testing.
Editor's note: What's your take on the latest developments in this ongoing spat? Should the SC rule on the findings of its own study or is the science skewed towards the anti-GM lobby? Let us know in the comments box below.