In a policy reversal that was in the works for a while, Union Minister for Environment and Forests M. Veerrapa Moily has approved field trials of GM food crops, which his predecessor Jayanthi Natarajan rejected.

At a press conference here on Thursday, Mr. Moily called the decision “routine” and said he approved only what the statutory appraisal committee had sanctioned and which had been pending decision with his predecessor for almost a year.

The decision was an expected one after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh publicly called opposition to GM crops “unscientific prejudices” and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar consistently favoured opening the gates to them. Mr. Moily also favoured the trials after taking charge of the Environment Ministry.

Earlier, Ms. Natarajan wrote to the Prime Minister after blocking the trials.

“The scientific community is, in fact, split vertically down the centre in its views on these issues, and robust, proven fail-safe scientific protocols to prevent damage from GM crops are yet to be developed in our country. It is also appreciated that the regulatory mechanism for GMOs, including food crops, in our country is still evolving… I feel that until the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India is in place, it will be prudent for us to proceed cautiously.”

She also warned in internal ministry notings that given the apprehensions, the Environment Ministry, as a regulator, should not be forced to align with the Agriculture Ministry’s stance.

But Mr. Moily said there was a misconception on the part of his predecessor that approval for the trials would fall foul of a Supreme Court order. He said an assessment in the Ministry concluded that the court had not stayed the trials.

In contrast, Ms. Natarajan had also opposed the move by the Committee of Secretaries, led by the Cabinet Secretary, to push for a unified government position before the court on regulation, in favour of immediate opening of field trials. The court is hearing a case, in which the majority report of a technical expert committee has asked for a moratorium on food crop trials until after reforms are put in place. The minority report, by one member nominated by the Agriculture Ministry, has favoured immediate trials.

Mr. Moily dismissed any question of prejudging the court’s decision, claiming that the government’s stand before it and the approval of trials were not co-related, and the latter were not banned by the court.

He said the companies that had secured the approval of the statutory Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) could go ahead with the trials subject to the standard conditions and the approval of the State governments. The GEAC had cleared the trials for the previous crop year.

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