Citing India’s obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity — whose global conference is now underway here — a Supreme Court-appointed panel has recommended a ban on genetically modified (GM) field trials until the regulatory system is completely overhauled.
It also called for a ten-year moratorium on field trials of Bt food crops (which are modified with the Bacillus thuringiensis gene, such as the proposed Bt Brinjal), and a complete ban on field trials of transgenics in crops which originate in India.
Hearing a petition filed by civil society activist Aruna Rodrigues and others, the apex court constituted a five-member technical expert committee of reputed scientists earlier this year. The committee’s interim report, submitted earlier this month, deals with the issue of whether open field trials of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) should be allowed, and if so, what conditions should be imposed. the next hearing in the case is on October 29.
The CBD’s Cartagena Protocol — to which India is a signatory — aims to ensure the safe use of GMOs and cites the Rio Declaration’s precautionary principle: Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.
In its interim report, the court-appointed panel cites this precautionary principle to insist that “it is incumbent upon the national regulatory process to incorporate steps to ensure that potential biosafety risks should be identified and minimised.” It then lists various shortcomings in the current regulatory process — including conflicts of interest among regulators, many of whom are GM scientists themselves, outsourcing and subcontracting trials in farmers’ fields, rather than in specific certified and monitored sites, and the lack of biosafety tests before open field trials.
“Keeping all these in view, the [committee] is unanimously of the view that all field trials should be stopped” until certain conditions rectifying these loopholes have been met, says the report.
The panel slams the current system, where one arm of the regulatory process is located within the department of biotechnology whose mandate is to promote the technology. “The regulatory body for GM products should be located entirely outside of the DBT, and a suggestion that it could be either in the Ministry of Environment and Forests or Ministry of Health or both,” says the report. This seems to overthrow the Prime Minister’s Scientific Advisory Council’s recommendations earlier this month in favour of the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill.
The panel also echoed international negotiators at the Cartagena Protocol meeting here , who had called for socio-economic considerations to be taken into account in making decisions on GM crops. The report called for farmers’ representatives, sociologists and civil society to be included in the regulatory process.
The CBD delegates also discussed the danger of countries losing their native and traditional crop varieties due to GM, citing the South American example. India seems to have taken note. “India is a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol which recognises the crucial importance of biodiversity as a long-term resource. The [panel] accordingly recommends a ban on field trials of transgenics in those crops for which India is a centre of origin or a centre of diversity, as transgenics can contaminate and adversely affect the biodiversity,” said the report.
It lists various shortcomings in the current regulatory process
Include farmers’ representatives, sociologists, civil society in regulatory process