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No environmental release of GM mustard, 'at least till SC considers the case further'

By Rosamma Thomas* 

On November 3, 2022, a Supreme Court bench comprising Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and Sudhanshu Dhulia ordered status quo on the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee’s (GEAC) decision of October 18, 2022 and subsequent decision of the Ministry of Environment and Forests of 25 October 2022 to allow environmental release of herbicide-tolerant (HT) genetically modified mustard DMH11 (Dhara Mustard Hybrid 11) in five states, based on an interim application filed by Ms Aruna Rodrigues in her pending writ petition.
No environmental release will be permitted, at least until the case is considered further on 10 November. Advocate Prashant Bhushan, representing Rodrigues, contended that the apex court in 2012 had constituted a technical expert committee with broad terms of reference to examine in detail the matter of genetically modified crops in India.
A press release from the petition said, “That committee called HT crops “unsustainable” and “unsuitable” for India; it noted that the herbicide sprayed on HT crops caused cancer; and said that non-GMO alternatives were available in the country; and recommended a “total ban” on all HT crops on the basis of the precautionary principle, as no long-term safety studies were done on the impact of edible GM crops in India on human health, animal health, and biodiversity.”
The government counsel had informed the court that GM mustard seeds were going to be planted in facilities of Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).
The court ordered the counsel to ensure that “no precipitative action is taken” until the application is heard and scheduled the matter for consideration on November 10.
Advocate Prashant Bhushan, representing Ms Rodrigues, reminded the court of the committee it had constituted in 2012, the Technical Expert Committee, whose terms of reference were to examine in detail the matter of genetically modified crops in India.
Here are excerpts from the TEC report:
  • Conclusion on HT crops: “The major concern with HT approaches is the excessive reliance on increased amounts of one or two herbicides which results in strong selective pressure for the emergence of herbicide resistant weeds and a negative impact on sustainability... they are likely to be accompanied by negative socio economic consequences as well as on the environment. There are alternatives to HT ….more appropriate in the Indian context”. p.67 of TEC Report 
  • “The conclusion of the TEC is that HT crops would most likely exert a highly adverse impact over time on sustainable agriculture, rural livelihoods, and the environment. The TEC finds them completely unsuitable in the Indian context”. p.71 of TEC Report
  • “The release of GM crop into its area of origin or diversity has far greater ramifications and potential for negative impact…. The TEC therefore recommends that release of GM crops for which India is a center of origin or diversity should not be allowed”. p.72 of TEC Report
  • In the case of HT Crops, “The evidence of harm is significant. ‘Roundup’ is also a potent carcinogen; it causes mammary cancers in rats which are equivalent to breast cancers in humans”. p.72 of TEC Report
  • “The bottom line for any biotechnology regulatory policy should be the safety of the environment, the wellbeing of farming families, the ecological and economic sustainability of farming systems, the health and nutrition security of consumers, safeguarding home and external trade and biosecurity of nation... Since there is public, political, and professional concern about transgenics with reference to their short and long term impacts on human health and the environment, their testing, evaluation, and approval have to be stringent, elaborate, and science based. The general approach therefore should be that: Biotech applications, which do not involve transgenics as biopesticides, biofertilizers and bio-remediation agents, should be accorded high priority.” p.93 of TEC Report
  • “Having examined the issue of HT crops in the detail required to arrive at a decision, the TEC recommends a complete ban on HT crops". p.93 of TEC Report
Bhushan reminded the court of its earlier orders and the submission by the Union government that as of that time no decision had been taken to release GM mustard in the environment. At that time, the government had also said that if such a decision were to be taken, it would be placed before the court.
The court asked Additional Solicitor General Ms Aishwarya Bhati of the current status of environmental release of GM mustard. She informed the court that GM mustard seeds were going to be planted in facilities of ICAR. The court directed her to ensure “no precipitative action is taken” until the application is heard. The matter is posted for hearing on November 10, 2022.
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*Freelance journalist

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