Even as the final report of the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee (TEC) on open field trials of genetically modified crops is awaited, 51 independent international scientists with expertise in genetic engineering and biosafety protocols have approved the panel’s Interim Report. The report has called for a 10-year moratorium on open field trials of Bt food crops until adequate regulatory mechanisms and safety standards are put in place.
With Bt brinjal being the first-ever food crop sought to be introduced in India, its dossier went through international appraisal and evoked much interest throughout the world.
“The TEC report attracted attention because of intense polarisation over the use of GM agri-biotechnologies in food and the environment and the large number of public and private researchers, investors and companies engaged in developing GM crops and associated Intellectual Property Rights claims,” the renowned GM scientists said in a statement.
Since the Interim Report was made public, the Union Agriculture Ministry filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court in favour of GM technology. After hearing the Ministry, the court appointed a sixth member on the panel.
This was opposed by Aruna Rodrigues, lead PIL petitioner, through her lawyer Prashant Bhushan, who said that in the matter of regulation of GM crops, the Ministry of Environment and Forests stood over the Agriculture Ministry.
Underscoring the need for science to operate free of commercial and political goals, the scientists said “the review of previous approvals in India for Bt crops left the TEC in no doubt that India was not ready to make reliable safety judgments because of failures in procedure, inadequate attention to development of competent and independent regulatory bodies and lack of appropriate management of conflict of interest among scientific consultants.”
“The TEC provided competence and independence to achieve credibility. The science used by the TEC is sound and its recommendations are reasonable. It has not imposed any new rules or suggested a moratorium on research. It has simply called for adequate standards to be established,” said the 51 signatories, including fellows of Royal Societies or National Academies of Science, scientists representing a range of research disciplines including plant genetic engineering and the creation of first GM food crop, tomato, in the U.S., which was later withdrawn for health concerns.
The TEC made 11 specific recommendations for properly regulating the development and commercialisation of genetically modified crops in India.
“It recommended that product testing outside of the laboratory [field trials] be stopped until a comprehensive and effective process for such testing could be implemented . Except for a ban on testing GM crops for which India is a centre of biodiversity or origin, all testing can restart as soon as the government provides a robust and proper procedure,” the statement said.
Endorsement from eminent citizens
Taking note of the concerns expressed by the scientists, three eminent citizens — the former Supreme Court judge, V.R. Krishna Iyer; the former Election Commissioner, J.M. Lyngdoh; and the former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, A.P. Shah — endorsed and forwarded their statement to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi.
“We involve ourselves in the matter of open field trials motivated by the absolute need for integrity in sound decision-making for good public policy. We are also advised by independent, international scientists who have joined from all corners of the globe to support the scientists of the TEC. We endorse their statement, which may not be ignored,” they said.
In a similar letter to Ms. Gandhi, they expressed “anxiety” over the “absence of rigour and transparency in the regulation of GM crops which may have irreversible impacts in the event of contamination of non-GM crops [unlike a drug which can be recalled].”
Stressing the need for “Precautionary Principle,” they asked the Prime Minister to “uphold” the Interim Report of the TEC as the “only safe course of action that must be taken, given the irreversibility of the consequences of GMO contamination.”
The former member of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), Pushpa Bhargava, endorsing the TEC Interim Report as “well-argued, scientific and fair,” has said the government denying this report implies that it has no compunction in throwing “outstanding science” out of the window.
He has urged the Prime Minister to instruct the Ministries concerned to “gracefully accept” the TEC recommendations.
“It must be understood that the TEC only recommended a limited time moratorium on Bt-based products intended for use as food, and on herbicide-tolerant crops until a full socio-economic and safety review of these products can be completed,” Ms. Rodrigues told The Hindu .