Advocate Prashant Bhushan, representing Aruna Rodrigues, presented arguments against the crop
Correction: An earlier version of the article mistakenly referred to Prashant Bhushan as the advocate for GM Free India. The error is regretted.
The Supreme Court of India on November 30, 2022, heard arguments challenging the Centre’s go-ahead to environmental clearance for genetically modified (GM) mustard. There may be irreversible contamination of the environment following unknown consequences once the crop is released, the court was told.
Advocate Prashant Bhushan, representing petitioner Aruna Rodrigues, presented a detailed argument to the SC against the approvals. Other activists like GM Free India coalition have also filed petitions against the GM crop.
Read more: Genetically modified food: Whose health, whose business
Dhara Mustard Hybrid (DMH-11) is a hybrid seed variety that has stirred a storm between scientists, farmers and activists over its commercialisation. It is the first GM crop to be commercially released and grown by farmers in India.
The issue has taken a front seat after the central biotech regulator, Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), approved environmental tests for the GM crop October 18.
The coalition approached the Supreme Court on November 2, seeking a reversal of the decision. However, the government of India, in its affidavit, informed the SC that the GM seeds were sown in six locations for environmental trials before November 3.
After repeatedly informing the SC that no approvals were given for the crop, the court was suddenly informed in October that the environmental clearances were given, Bhushan argued.
Mustard is widely used in India and is central to crop biodiversity, the advocate told the court. The GM crop is a herbicide-tolerant variety and toxic chemicals sprayed and absorbed by the plant would pose health concerns for the persons consuming it.
The use of herbicide cannot be controlled or regulated by farmers, Bhushan said.
Apart from creating GM mustard, a new gene is also created, which enables the plant to create new proteins. This may lead to issues such as allergenicity, toxicity and the development of superweeds that are extremely resistant to herbicides, the advocate argued.
Bhushan also referenced the court order dated May 10, 2012 — Aruna Rodrigues v Union of India — citing there would be contamination of the environment using GM crops.
Read more: Vacuum in governance on genetically modified foods in India
There is a 0.01 per cent chance of contamination as per the order, which is a serious issue, the advocate told the jury members. This is the reason most European countries have banned genetically modified organisms.
Recommendations made by the GEAC in its 147th meeting held October 18, 2002 were also cited by him. The recommendations stated that effects of GM mustard on honeybees and other pollinators will be examined after its environmental release.
Once released, there will be irreversible contamination in the environment following unknown consequences, Bhushan said.
He further raised the observations made by the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) June 30, 2013, appointed by the Supreme Court regarding the approval of Bt Brinjal, another GM crop.
“The TEC had recommended a moratorium on field trials for Bt Brinjal in food till we develop a better understanding & regulatory system,” he said, citing the panel’s report.
Bhushan further quoted the TEC report and said:
There are major gaps in the regulatory system. These need to be addressed before issues related to tests can be meaningfully considered. Till such time, it would not be advisable to conduct more [open] field trials.
A 10-year moratorium on field trials of transgenic Bt Brinjal was suggested by the TEC in its interim report, the advocate argued. But in its final report, the panel recommended an indefinite and blanket ban on herbicide-tolerant crops.
Read more: Genetically modified ingredients found in baby food
Known carcinogens like herbicides glyphosate and glufosinate are commonly used for the preparation of GM mustard. “In the US, the company that manufactures herbicides, also produces herbicide-tolerant plants. There are so many health problems in the US,” Bhushan said.
The advocate also brought up professor PM Bhargava, eminent molecular biologist and founder director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, who criticised GM crops before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture.
Bt Brinjal was hurriedly approved, Bhushan quoted from Bhargava’s deposition.
Observations by the department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment & Forests (Rajya Sabha) report 301, published 2017, were also quoted by the advocate.
The committee noted there was haste to commercialise GM crops in India and without scientific proof on it being safe for human health, the government should reconsider its decision, the report said.
“If GM crops are allowed in the midst of other indigenous farming, there is no way contamination can be stopped,” Bhushan read from the report. “Once contamination happens, the crops are no longer organic. Will definitely affect exports.”
The environmental trials of GM mustard must be stopped, Bhushan said while resting his case. “The seeds have already germinated and will flower in some weeks. Wherever they have planted the GM mustard seeds, the plants must be uprooted at once,” he said.
The TEC report in 2013 identified major gaps in the regulatory system that remained unaddressed to date, submitted advocate Sanjay Parikh, appearing for Gene Campaign, another petitioner in the case. Until they are attended to, it is unadvisable to conduct field trials, he added.
He also questioned GEAC’s authority to approve the crop despite being an appraisal committee.
Read more: "Genetically modified technology is absolutely price neutral"
GEAC in 2018 directed field demonstration in an area of five acres at different locations to observe the effect of GM mustard on honey bees and other pollinators and honey and on soil microbial diversity before their environmental release, he stated.
Later, the trials were deferred, and the same committee endorsed its environmental release. The decision to note the effect on the pollinators post-release puts GEAC’s independence under doubt, Parikh said.
Justice D Maheshwari asked the advocate to continue his submissions on December 1.
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