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Govt of India argument 'unscientific, it lied in SC': GM mustard environmental release

Counterview Desk 

The advocacy group Coalition for a GM-Free India has urged the Supreme Court of India to pass orders to implement the unanimous recommendations of the five independent experts of the Court’s Technical Expert Committee, including the Government  of India’s experts. 
It said in a statement GM mustard is "undoubtedly an herbicide tolerant (HT) crop that will leave its adverse impacts on livelihoods, environment and food safety. Stating that it is therefore "unwanted, unneeded and unsafe", it added, the recent conditional approval given to GM HT mustard is "legally untenable".
Condemning the attempt of Government of India to criminalise farmers despite the fact that GM HT mustard appraisal and approval is laden with numerous constitutional and legal violations, in addition to violations of Supreme Court orders, it underlined, the conditional approval for environmental release prior to commercial cultivation is simply a ruse to create a regulatory vacuum.
It added, in the process, State governments are being bypassed, weakening the regulation mechanism, despite strong objections.

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The GM-Free India urges the Supreme Court to pass orders that ensure implementation of the key unanimous recommendations of the SC’s Technical Expert Committee of five independent experts, including the Government of India-nominated two scientists. The Coalition pointed out that the TEC has recommended a complete ban on Herbicide Tolerant crops in India, given the multiple adverse impacts of such crops in India’s agricultural production systems. Delhi University’s GM mustard is undoubtedly an herbicide tolerant crop. Moreover, the SC TEC has also recommended that field trials for commercial release of GM crops for which India is a Centre of Origin or Diversity should not be allowed. Meanwhile, the crop biology document that guided the regulators in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change points to India being a secondary centre of origin for mustard, while other literature clearly shows that India is the Centre of Diversity for the crop.
The Coalition points out that Dr RS Paroda’s dissenting report in the Supreme Court is clearly spurred by the conflict of interest that he holds by running an industry-funded entity that pushes GM technology as a solution, whereas the unanimous report of the 5 independent experts is a report that responds to the Order of 10th May 2012, which asked the TEC whether there should be a ban, partial or otherwise, upon conducting open field tests of GMOs in addition to all its Terms of Reference.
The unscientific statements and outright lies of the Government of India in the Supreme Court are spurred by the fact that GM mustard is indeed a HT crop, and that is the reason why the approval letter issued by the Government of India on October 25th 2022 seeks to criminalise farmers for using glufosinate while growing GM mustard hybrid crop. This very condition, which is legally untenable, is the loudest give-away that GM mustard under consideration is an herbicide tolerant crop. This condition is legally untenable because the Insecticides Act 1968 explicitly keeps farmers out of the purview of regulation of the statute (Sec. 38), while EPA 1986 will not be applicable on them in this case, where “environmental release” has already been permitted; EPA 1986 does not regulate herbicide usage. Even the flaunting of this conditional approval is therefore a brazen attempt to mislead the Hon’ble Court.
The Government has been arguing in Court that the regulatory regime is robust and all laid down Rules, Regulations and Guidelines have been followed in appraising this GM mustard. However, this is simply untrue and the Coalition has brought out an elaborate report on the numerous Constitutional, Legal and other violations that have accompanied the appraisal and approval of GM HT mustard of Delhi University. These violations and scientific compromises were essentially to hide the lack of safety of GM mustard. For this purpose, the regulator Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee chose to violate both the Supreme Court Order asking for all biosafety data to be published on its website as well as CIC Orders. In fact, in both cases, the regulator gave an undertaking that it will publish the said data, but this has been kept hidden to this day.
The Coalition therefore points out that what the Hon’ble Supreme Court is contending with is both an issue on which it has received independent technical experts’ recommendations, and also has to take cognizance of the numerous violations committed by the Government of India.
RS Paroda’s dissenting report in SC is spurred by conflict of interest. He is with an industry-funded entity that pushes GM technology
Meanwhile, unlike the widespread consultative processes that governed decision making with regard to Bt brinjal in 2009-2010, and that respected the Constitutional authority of state governments over Agriculture and Health, the current Government is trying to stifle the views, voices and policy positions of state governments. While brinjal is grown on about 6-8 lakh hectares in the country, rapeseed-mustard is grown on about 100 lakh hectares! While there were more tests conducted on Bt brinjal (even though those were not comprehensive or rigorous), GM mustard bypassed such testing too. There is hardly a kitchen in India which does not use mustard, and this approval of a transgenic herbicide tolerant version of Indian mustard has the potential to jeopardise food safety on a very large scale.
State governments have not been consulted when the Ministry of Environment approved GM mustard environmental release whereas Mr Jairam Ramesh, the then Environment Minister wrote to various state governments eliciting their views on Bt brinjal, in 2009-10. The current government in fact ignored objection letters written by numerous governments, and violated an undertaking it had given to the Supreme Court in 2017 that it will place on record any decision taken before moving further.
What is worse is that the Government of India has created a situation of regulatory vacuum by approving GM mustard environmental release. In a recent Parliament reply, the Government claimed that there is no need to take any consent from any state government, while it secretly planted GM mustard in 8 locations in Rabi 2022. It claims that no NOC is required because environmental release has been approved. On the other hand, state governments have no regulatory lever left in their hands, because the Seeds Act or Seeds Control Order have not kicked in yet. In any case, a state government will not be able to implement its policy position in its own jurisdiction against GM mustard or any other GM crop because GM seeds can be leaked in illegally and end up contaminating the native diversity.
It is in such a situation that the Coalition for a GM-Free India urges the Supreme Court to put a permanent ban on GM HT mustard and its open-air release by any name and protect India’s rich diversity of mustard varieties. It also requests the suo-motu intervention by the Hon’ble Court in ensuring that all gene-edited organisms and products thereof are strictly regulated and reverse the Government decision to nearly de-regulate certain kinds of gene editing. Moreover, state governments should not be bypassed under any circumstance when it comes to open air releases of GMOs, included gene edited organisms and the policy positions of states should be protected. In fact, a strict liability regime should be put into place, which is long-pending in India, for all violations and ramifications from gene technologies in our food and farming systems.

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