GM mustard: Hearing starts afresh; SC hears arguments on both sides

Three-day hearing concluded by new bench of justices BV Nagarathna and Sanjay Karol

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Friday 12 January 2024
Photo: iStock

The Supreme Court on January 9, 2024 resumed hearing on the genetically modified (GM) mustard. 

A group of petitioners, including activist Aruna Rodrigues, food activists, non-governmental organisations and others, have challenged the central government’s decision on commercial cultivation of GM mustard. A public interest litigation was first filed in the matter in 2004. 

The pleas were earlier heard by now-retired justice Dinesh Maheshwari. The hearings began afresh with a new bench comprising justices BV Nagarathna and Sanjay Karol.

The indigenously developed first GM food crop, HT Mustard DMH-11, received approval from the government in October 2022, soon after which the field trials began. The petitioners had demanded an immediate stop to environmental releases as their impact would be irreversible.

Read more: DTE Coverage: Does India really need GM mustard

In November 2022, the SC issued a status quo that has put the development on hold.

Leading the arguments for three days, advocate Prashant Bhushan led the arguments on behalf of petitioners about the threats posed by GMOs (GM organisms). He also cited the concerns and recommendations raised by the technical expert committee (TEC) formed by the Supreme Court in 2012 and the parliamentary standing committee. 

“Technical committee report says no GM crop should be allowed, where India is the centre of origin. For mustard, India is the centre for diversity of mustard,” Bhushan said.

The TEC had expressed that the GMO regulations in the country needed to be realigned and lacked expertise to conduct chronic and long-term toxicity studies, the advocate told the court. The committee members had also suggested that herbicide-tolerant crops be completely banned in India. 

Bhushan argued that such recommendations should be implemented. There was no objection to the experiments in closed conditions, but not only to the environmental release, which would cause contamination of mustard crops. 

Read more: Centre’s response on GM mustard proves regulatory violations, claim activists

The advocate further explained the provisions of the Environment Protection Act, 1986. Senior advocate Sanjay Parikh, on behalf of one of the petitioners, Gene Campaign, continued to point out gaps in the data collected by the government.

On January 11, Bhushan said, “They (Union government) say that it is herbicide tolerant, but it is not meant to be used as such...the only reason they are saying it needs to be used is to produce hybrids, which will also contain the bar gene.”

He added the herbicide will enter the food system. “Ultimately farmers will use this variety to destroy weeds...many of them will not care that this herbicide is poisonous...herbicide is going to cause cancer to people who are going to eat it,” he said.

Bhushan maintained that despite the government claiming it is not using herbicide-tolerant traits in commercial plant production, the DMH-11 will remain an herbicide-tolerant variety. He argued that in mustard, there cannot be a GM crop, irrespective of whether it is herbicide tolerant or not. 

SA Trideep Pais, arguing on the law, said, “The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) functions through sub-committees and an expert committee, which is not permissible under the rules. So therefore, the process is vitiated.”

Read more: GM mustard: Need to address economic issues of using the crop

Pais also pointed out that health and safety are an essential component of the Rules for the Manufacture / Use / Import / Export and Storage of Hazardous Microorganisms, Genetically Engineered Organisms or Cells, 1989 under the Environment (Protection) Act. However, in meetings of central biotech regulator GEAC and sub-committee members, health experts were consistently absent, he said.

“The biosafety dossier, which was the basis of the approval, has never seen light of day, never published, never placed before this honourable Court, never made accessible as promised to this honourable Court,” Pais stated.

Regulators had been told to place the orders on their website by the Supreme Court, but have not been complied with to this day, Kavitha Kuruganti of coalition for a GM-free India, a pan-Indian citizen’s platform, wrote on X (formerly Twitter).

Attorney General R Venkatramani told the court that the GEAC, which gave approval for trials, was constituted on provisions in the law and various aspects were considered by it. He said, “This is a subject where many dimensions and aspects are intertwined...the question of pure science by itself is not a consideration.”

Venkatramani cited a study stating that India’s gene pool is very narrow. He further presented the biosafety regime prevalent today guarantees and addresses all concerns and issues.

Read more: ‘Approval of GM mustard may threaten food security, increase pesticide tolerance’

He added that large-scale adoption of GM crops is seen in countries like the United States, Australia and Brazil, which are producers and exporters of different agricultural commodity. 

The attorney general said, “This is a subject in which there are debates on ideological questions also,” to which Justice Nagarathna said, “What does ideology have to do with science? There has to be a scientific basis?”

The court questioned if the recommendations were considered by GEAC, adding that “GEAC was not working in vacuum...petition was pending for over a decade...should it (report) be consigned to the record room?”

The matter has been listed until January 16, 2024, subject to availably/constitution of the same bench.

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