Nagpur, Oct. 19: An expert panel set up by the Supreme Court has recommended a ten-year moratorium on field trials of genetically modified (GM) food crops and herbicide-tolerant crops.
It has also suggested a blanket ban on field trials of GM versions of crops that have India as their place of origin.
Over a hundred GM crops, including certain vegetables, are now under various stages of trial in the country. The expert panel’s recommendations stand in sharp contrast to those by the Prime Minister’s science and advisory council, which has made a strong pitch for adoption of GM technology in crops.
The recommendation for a moratorium on GM crops is based on the panel’s suspicions of the bio-safety data with the regulatory body, the Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee (GEAC), including its data on Bt cotton and Bt brinjal.
The current bio-safety practices do not include either short-term or long-term tests on a GM crop’s effects on the body of humans or even lab animals. The GEAC’s bio-safety data relate merely to environmental concerns.
The court-appointed, six-member technical advisory committee, made up by eminent scientists, has said in its October 7 interim report that field trials of all GM crops should be stopped till these conditions have been met:
Specific field-trial sites have been designated and certified, and adequate monitoring mechanisms put in place.
A panel of qualified scientists has been engaged for scrutiny and analysis of safety data on GM crops.
Any conflict of interest in the regulatory body has been removed — the reference is to several GEAC members’ alleged interest in companies promoting GM crops.
A stipulation has been enforced for preliminary bio-safety tests before field trials, including tests for low-level toxicity in small animals such as rodents living in the agricultural plots.
The moratorium on field trials of herbicide-tolerant crops has been recommended because of concerns about their health safety and environmental hazards, as well as socio-economic considerations.
If this imported crop technology is adopted, weed-killing drugs can be generously used in the fields without fear of the crops being damaged. This will mean a huge loss in employment for the thousands hired for manual weeding on farmland.
This moratorium will stay till an independent panel of experts and stakeholders has examined the potential impact of the technology and its suitability to India.
The ban on field trials of GM versions of crops for which India is the centre of origin or a centre of diversity has been recommended on considerations of biodiversity. Adoption of GM technology can contaminate and wipe out the original crop.
The expert panel has said 10 years is “a reasonable length of time” for setting up a revamped regulatory regime and “developing a cadre of experts” on evaluation of food safety and environmental impact. It has advocated monitoring of GM crops’ effects on consumer health after release in the market, and long-term toxicity tests.
It has said all bio-safety data with the GEAC should be re-examined by qualified scientists, “if necessary... by international experts”. It has recommended inter-generation studies on farm rodents to be added to the tests.
The bench of Justices S.H. Kapadia, A.K. Patnaik and Swatanter Kumar had formed the expert panel while hearing a public interest litigation filed in 2005 by activist Aruna Rodrigues and other environmental and farm activists.
On May 10 this year, the court had asked the panel to hand in its report in three months or, if that was not possible, at least file an interim report spelling out whether there should be a ban on field tests of GM crops and, if not, what conditions should be imposed on them.
The final report will be submitted later. The next hearing is on October 29.