30 Nov 2022 1:54 PM GMT
As the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) is moving ahead with its plan of releasing a genetically modified herbicide-tolerant crop, christened "HT Mustard DMH-11", activists opposing this on Wednesday implored the Supreme Court of India to intervene urgently. A Division Bench comprising Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and B.V. Nagarathna was hearing a batch of...
As the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) is moving ahead with its plan of releasing a genetically modified herbicide-tolerant crop, christened "HT Mustard DMH-11", activists opposing this on Wednesday implored the Supreme Court of India to intervene urgently. A Division Bench comprising Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and B.V. Nagarathna was hearing a batch of petitions seeking a ban on the commercial cultivation of indigenously developed genetically modified mustard seeds which in October, received the imprimatur of the Environment Ministry. This is the first time a transgenic food crop is planned to be commercially cultivated in India.
Appearing for one of the petitioners, Advocate Prashant Bhushan argued, "On one hand, we have the spectre of irreversible contamination of all mustard in this country if you allow the release of genetically modified mustard. On top of that, we do not know what kind of effect it will have because either the requisite studies have not been conducted, or they are unreliable. On the other hand, the only benefit which, they have claimed will accrue, is that this technology would be used to produce genetically modified hybrids, which may or may not outperform normal hybrid mustard." Informing the Bench that the process of environmental release of genetically modified mustard was already underway and the crop had been planted in open fields in certain locations, the counsel requested the apex court to put an immediate end to this operation. "The seeds have already germinated and the plants will flower in another two weeks. Wherever they have planted the genetically modified mustard, the plants must be uprooted at once," Bhushan appealed.
In an affidavit filed by the nodal Ministry, the central government had on November 9 informed the court that the commercial cultivation of genetically modified crops would be critical in enhancing crop yield and meeting "the emerging challenges in Indian agriculture and ensure food security, while reducing foreign dependency". The present-day necessity to import more than half of the total edible oil required in the country was greatly stressed. However, the petitioners strongly disagreed with the government's claim and contended that the introduction of this hybrid crop would be fraught with biosafety hazards. The crux of their contention was that "the science and the data" justified a complete and outright ban on herbicide-tolerant crops, particularly HT Mustard DMH-11 and its parent lines, in line with the precautionary principle. Bhushan submitted, "The precautionary principle is squarely applicable to this case. Since there is significant doubt about the likelihood or magnitude of the potential harm caused by releasing genetically modified mustard, steps should be taken to avoid the prospect of harm. There are at least 20 judgements of this court on this point."
The counsel highlighted that the herbicide-tolerant plant would encourage the uncontrolled use of glufosinate ammonium, which is a widely applied, broad-spectrum herbicide used to control weeds. The herbicide sprayed on the food crop would be absorbed and eventually lead to long-term health problems in people and animals due to overexposure to toxic chemicals, Bhushan said. He conceded that the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee under the Environment Ministry while submitting their recommendations to release genetically engineered mustard crops, had also laid down a condition enjoining farmers from using any formulation of herbicide for the cultivation of such crops without due approval. In the same breath, he remonstrated, "How will they monitor and prevent farmers from spraying herbicide? Glufosinate ammonium is a known carcinogen. This condition becomes meaningless because it is impossible to enforce." Other than that, the creation of new genes would lead to plants manufacturing new proteins, which would, in turn, lead to a host of problems including "toxicity, allergenicity, and development of superweeds", Bhushan told the top court. Bhushan also disputed the government's purported objective of hybridisation, explaining that hybridisation did not require environmental release and could be done under "greenhouse conditions".
In support of his contentions, the counsel drew the attention of the court to the reports of several committees, including a technical expert committee constituted pursuant to an order of the apex court, which in 2013 had categorically stated that it would be inadvisable to conduct more open field trials before, inter alia, addressing the gaps in the regulatory system and enhancing the understanding of the long-term impacts of introducing genetically modified crops on human and animal health and the ecology. Although in the interim report, this panel had suggested a moratorium of ten months on field trials of Bt transgenics, in its final report, an indefinite and complete ban on herbicide-tolerant crops was recommended, Bhushan told the court. The counsel also took the court through a 2017 report of the Department-Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment & Forests of the Rajya Sabha, in which the environmental impact of genetically modified crops was closely examined, and the central government exhorted to reconsider its decision to commercialise genetically modified crops in the country. Apart from this, Bhushan also relied on the deposition of Dr Pushpa Mittra Bhargava, an eminent scientist and one of the most vocal critics of genetically modified crops, before a parliamentary standing committee, in which, among other things, the scientist had alleged that Bt brinjal was hurriedly approved because of external pressure. "Dr Bhargava set up one of the foremost genetic research institutes in the country, and was its director till he died," Bhushan said about the scientist. However, anything apart from his technical and expert opinion, especially the allegations he had levelled against the government of the time, would likely not be relevant, Justice Maheshwari clarified.
To further buttress his point, Bhushan told the court that genetically modified organisms were banned in most European countries. He added, "Just yesterday, the High Court in Kenya temporarily suspended the government's plan to allow the import and distribution of genetically modified organisms pending the determination of a lawsuit against the lifting of the ban."
The Bench also heard the submissions of Senior Advocate Sanjay Parikh, who was representing a grassroots non-governmental organisation called Gene Campaign. In addition to the issues already traversed by Bhushan, the senior counsel flagged that the "major gaps" in the regulatory system, as highlighted by the Supreme Court's five-member expert panel in 2013, had not yet been filled. "The regulatory system has largely remained the same," Parikh lamented. He also expressed his doubts about the independence of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee. He pointed out that despite recommending, in 2018, field demonstrations in a few locations before the environmental release of genetically modified mustard to determine the effect of genetically modified mustard on honey bees and other pollinators, honey, and soil microbial diversity, the Committee, in 2022, made a complete volte-face when they endorsed post environmental release studies into the long-term effects on pollinators. Additionally, Parikh also emphasised that the GEAC was an "appraisal committee" and not an "approval committee".
On November 3, a Division Bench comprising Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and Sudhanshu Dhulia, orally asked the Union Government to maintain the status quo on the commercial cultivation of genetically modified mustard and to refrain from taking any precipitate action with respect to its release. The matter is listed again tomorrow, December 1. The Bench is scheduled to hear the submissions of the Attorney-General for India, R. Venkataramani and the counsel for a Maharashtra-based farmers union, Shetkari Sanghatana, who has, citing Bt Cotton's success, filed an application opposition the public interest litigations.
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