‘Cannot reverse harm to environment’: SC defers hearing on GM mustard
The Supreme Court of India has expressed concerns over the release of genetically modified (GM) mustard, saying harm to the environment cannot be reversed. The court refused permission to the government to proceed with the sowing of GM mustard seeds and postponed the hearing until 26 September. A number of petitions have been filed against the environmental release clearance granted to GM mustard hybrid DMH-11. The mustard crop was developed by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants at Delhi University.
New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday expressed concerns over the release of genetically modified (GM) mustard, saying any harm to the environment cannot be reversed.
With the second sowing season for GM mustard round the corner, the top court refused permission to the Centre to proceed with the sowing of the seeds and posted the matter for hearing on September 26.
A bench of justices BV Nagarathna and Ujjal Bhuyan was hearing an application filed by the Centre last week, seeking withdrawal of an oral undertaking it had submitted on November 3 that no “precipitative steps” would be taken as the validity of the GM technology is under consideration.
“If we discharge you, then what remains in the matter. You cannot be allowed to release it into the environment… The environmental harm cannot be reversed,” the bench said.
A batch of petitions have been filed in the top court against the environmental release clearance granted to transgenic mustard hybrid DMH-11 by Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), under the ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) on October 25. The transgenic mustard hybrid DMH-11 was developed by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP) at Delhi University. So far, the Centre, in 2002, approved only one GM crop – Bt cotton – for commercial cultivation.
Appearing for the Centre, additional solicitor general (ASG) Aishwarya Bhati said the production of GM mustard will help achieve food security targets and reduce dependence on edible oil imports as nearly 50-60% of edible oil demand, constituting chiefly of mustard, is met through imports.
“There are huge stakes involved in helping India secure its food security targets. An order to the contrary will put us back by many years,” Bhati said.
The bench, however, said: “At the same time, environment and ecology has to be maintained.”
With the second sowing season for GM mustard round the corner, the Centre sought permission from the top court to proceed with the sowing of the seeds purely for research purposes, and not for commercial cultivation. The ASG said 12 years of research had gone behind this project and the environmental release of the GM mustard over four successive sowing seasons would aid scientists in gathering findings considered crucial for achieving higher mustard productivity.
The Centre assured the top court that field trials are being handled by experts at all levels, and sought permission to discharge the November 3 undertaking and proceed with the sowing. Alternatively, the ASG requested the court to allow research to continue on the GM mustard crops planted at 8 out of 10 designated sites of Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) last year and seek a report.
During the hearing, Bhati also said that the November 3 undertaking by her was made as the top court was scheduled to take up the clutch of petitions against use of GM mustard for hearing the following week.
The assurance was made as the next sowing season was one year away, the ASG said, adding: “We are keen not to miss out on the sowing season. One year has already gone by and truncated sowing will affect research.”
To this, the bench said “nothing will happen for another three weeks”, and posted the matter for hearing on September 26. “It is only for one year. Next year, there will be another sowing season,” the bench added.
The court also indicated that since the matter was earlier heard by a bench headed by justice Dinesh Maheshwari, who has since retired, the arguments will have to begin afresh.
Since the next sowing season begins in September, the Centre’s request to advance the hearing date was not entertained by the court.
A public interest litigation (PIL) challenging the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMO) was filed by NGO Gene Campaign in 2004, followed by activist Aruna Rodrigues, among others. The petitioners sought transparency in the results of field trials conducted on GM crops and demanded a comprehensive and rigorous biosafety protocol by GEAC before the grant of clearance to any GMO.
The petitioners referred to findings of a technical expert committee that found GM crops “unsustainable” and “unsuitable” for India, noting that the herbicides sprayed on the herbicide-tolerant crops, including GM mustard, could cause cancer.
Senior advocate Sanjay Parikh, who appeared for Gene Campaign, told the court that the GM mustard crops planted last year should be uprooted as there is risk of its release into the environment.
Appearing for Rodrigues, advocate Prashant Bhushan said: “They say it is not for commercial release, but what they have done last year is to release these crops into the environment. If they want to conduct research, let them do it in a closed space so that there is no risk of contamination of non-GM crops.”
In its application on August 21, the Centre said: “The oral statement made on behalf of the Union of India on November 3 was in the specific context of the present matter being listed for final hearing the following week. This was not intended to halt the entire process of research/testing under the conditional approval by the government (on October 25) for an extended period of time.”