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Food worry feeds GM trials

New Delhi, Nov. 9: The Supreme Court today refused to stay field trials of genetically modified food crops for now despite a court-appointed panel recommending a 10-year moratorium, after the Centre said such a freeze would hit food security for a growing population.

The five-member technical expert committee’s (TEC) interim report had advocated the moratorium till the country improved its regulatory system for GM field trials to ensure proper evaluation of these crops’ health, environmental and socio-economic impacts.

“We can’t stay the trial,” the bench of Justices Swatanter Kumar and S.J. Mukhopadhyay observed. It directed that all the objections to the TEC report be placed before the committee and asked the panel to submit its final report in six weeks.

Plant biotechnology proponents hailed the court decision but sections of independent scientists and critics who have alleged lapses in the existing regulatory system hoped the TEC’s final report too would advocate a moratorium and the court would accept it.

Attorney-general G.E. Vahanvati told the court the government “rejected” the committee report “outright” as it was “scientifically flawed and the committee went beyond its jurisdiction”. He said GM crops were needed to meet a growing population’s demand for food.

“Biotechnology could bring in a second green revolution. The methods of conventional breeding are showing very marginal increase in yield. Further, the use of inputs like fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation schemes is expensive and unsustainable,” the Centre said.

“There is a need to increase food grain production from the current estimated supply of 257 million tonnes to 345 million tonnes by 2030. With no further possibility of increasing the net sown area, the only recourse left to meet... food security is through increase in productivity.”

The Centre said “scientifically validated international norms have been put in place for each stage of research and development”, and argued that a moratorium would:

* Halt the testing and assessment of GM crop safety. India’s farmers and economy would be the biggest losers “because eventually India will be forced to import technology by paying much higher price”.

* Be a “blow to Indian science” and put the country back by 20 years “in comparison to fast-growing economies who are developing GM crops like Brazil, China and others”.

* Prevent the country from “attracting scientific talent from the younger generations in the absence of opportunity”.

Counsel for various crop biotechnology companies too opposed the TEC recommendations. Lawyers Prashant Bhushan, Kamini Jaiswal and Sanjay Parekh appeared for certain NGOs to argue the opposite point.

The apex court, hearing a petition by activist Aruna Rodrigues to ban GM field trials, had formed the committee with experts in molecular biology, nutrition and toxicology on May 10. It today appointed plant biologist R.S. Paroda as its sixth member but clarified that if he declined the appointment, the panel should still go ahead and prepare its final report.

“We welcome the court’s observation and its decision to appoint Dr Paroda,” said Kameswar Rao, executive secretary of the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education in Bangalore, a non-government agency campaigning for accelerated introduction of GM crops.

“We need someone with a very strong background in plant biotechnology in the TEC,” Rao said.

But a non-government network, the Coalition for a GM-free India, said the Centre’s stand suggested it had been influenced by the biotechnology lobby.

“We trust that scientific evidence on this imprecise and yet-to-be-proven-safe living technology will continue to prevail in the (TEC’s) final report in spite of the undue pressure from powerful quarters,” it said.

A public relations agency released statements by several farmers welcoming the court decision but at least one of the farmers quoted in the release told this newspaper he did not have details of the court’s observations.

“It is good that the court hasn’t accepted the TEC’s interim recommendations in a hurry,” said Inderjit Singh Dua, professor emeritus of botany at Panjab University, Chandigarh. “There should be no ban on field trials ---- it will stall research.”

The Coalition, however, said those opposing the TEC recommendations have misleadingly made it appear as though a moratorium would lead to a complete cessation of all GM research. The TEC has given “very measured recommendations for specific conditions to be made for our regulatory regime to become robust and trustworthy”, a Coalition statement said.

The TEC had said the existing evaluation process was “short on substance and requisite rigour”. It had observed that the regulatory body would need a dedicated team of scientists qualified in biology, environmental impact and socio-economic aspects to scrutinise and take responsibility for examining safety data of GM crops from animal tests.

Additional reporting by G.S. Mudur