Will you be doomed if GM mustard is not approved now, apex court asks Centre

The SC, on the second day of hearing, sought details on the Union government’s claim of GM mustard being a herbicide-tolerant crop  

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Thursday 01 December 2022
The next hearing on GM mustard will be held on Wednesday, December 7
The next hearing on GM mustard will be held on Wednesday, December 7 The next hearing on GM mustard will be held on Wednesday, December 7

Will the Union government be doomed if genetically modified (GM) mustard is not approved for commercial release immediately, Justice BV Nagarathna of the Supreme Court asked the Centre December 1, 2022, on the second day of hearing on the matter.

“Are you saying that if we do not do it then we are doomed?” Nagarathna asked. He added that Indian farmers were not like western farmers, who were aware of plant genetics.

“We are not on ideology. Our farmers are not like farmers of western countries as far as literacy and awareness is concerned about genes and mutations. No matter how many ‘Krishi Melas’ (agriculture fairs) and ‘Krishi Darshan’ (a programme on agriculture broadcast on DD Kisan channel) we have. That is the ground reality. We have to look at everything in entirety,” he added.

The apex court is conducting hearings on the GM mustard hybrid Dhara Mustard Hybrid (DMH-11).

The Coalition for GM Free India has challenged the central government’s decision on approving GM mustard for environmental trials. The Coalition is a loose, informal network of scores of organisations and individuals from across India.

A division bench comprising Justice Nagarathna and Justice Dinesh Maheshwari had heard the submissions of advocates Prashant Bhushan and Sanjay Parikh November 30.

Bhushan, representing activist Aruna Rodrigues, had warned about irreversible environmental contamination and damages among other issues to the Supreme Court.

Nagarathna had also questioned the intent of the Union government on granting approval of GM mustard:

Is there a compelling reason for the release of GM mustard at this stage? Can it be done after developing a better understanding at a later stage? The question that has to be answered is whether environmental release will have irreversible consequences?

Justice Maheshwari also questioned the scientific technicalities of the GM mustard seed creation and expressed concern over the technology.

“Where does the bar gene go? This particular process with the bar gene may be ultimately creating the problem. That technical, scientific aspect must be clarified. The sentence “the bar gene is of no utility” is troubling us,” he said.

Attorney General R Venkataramani said during his submission that GM mustard was not a herbicide-tolerant (HT) crop.

Read GM mustard: Crop’s release would irreversibly damage the environment, SC told

Justice Maheshwari asked, “Is a scientific expert here to instruct you, Mr Attorney General? It appears that you have stressed that DMH-11 is not a herbicide-tolerant crop. But the petitioners have argued that GM mustard answers to that description.”

To answer the query, Venkataramani read from the government’s affidavit, “GM mustard has not been developed as a herbicide-tolerant technology. The HT trait is essential for eliminating fertile plants in the hybrid seed production plots.”

He also questioned why the Coalition for GM Free India was against it. “They have certain anxieties and concerns. That is understandable. But, they are asking why get into this at all. That is an ideological position.”

Venkataramani further said, “Are we going to enter into it at all? The answer is yes. For that, we have a regulatory process.”

He stressed that the next question has nothing to do with ‘compelling reason’ but only the process. “So far, I have demonstrated that the process is followed,” he said.

Venkataramani pointed out that in 2010, 2011 and 2014, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) had granted approvals to conduct Biosafety Research Level-1 and 2 trials regarding seed production and environmental safety studies on GM mustard.

The attorney general also claimed that the new GM mustard hybrid with higher output will help increase agricultural income for farmers and reduce foreign dependency via imports.

Venkataramani also said more than one opinion existed globally and the court thus can’t question which science is good or bad. “Rule of law means procedures, guarantees, compliance. That is where the court comes in,” he said.

He questioned whether it would be possible for the court to intervene solely on the basis of a report that challenged science unless it found deficiencies in those processes and procedures.

Venkataramani was referring to the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) that was constituted for approval of Bt Brinjal, another GM food crop. The committee was appointed in 2013 and had expressed concerns about introducing the GM crop, citing health concerns.

Justice Maheshwari commented, “You are right that beyond a certain threshold, we are not going to enter the arena of core science. But, two questions: Was TEC given an opportunity to have a relook? Did you bring it to our notice before proceeding because the matter was sub judice?”

Maheshwari said the petitioners in the case had focused on the precautionary principle. He noted, “When you are proceeding in divergence with the TEC’s opinion, which is that herbicide-tolerant crops are not suitable in the Indian context, you are required to show rational criteria.”

He demanded answers for the questions posed by the court and also the report of the Parliamentary Committee.

The bench demanded answers based on Bhushan’s submission from November 30 where he shared observations made by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment & Forests (Rajya Sabha) report 301 that was published in 2017.

The committee report stated that there was haste to commercialise GM crops in India. It added that the central government must reconsider its decision as it had no scientific proof of it being safe for human health.

The next hearing will be held on Wednesday, December 7.

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