Keeping its agenda, records of discussions and results of safety trials under wraps, the environment ministry’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) is set to decide next week whether it is safe to commercially grow genetically modified mustard. The committee is scheduled to meet on February 5 and could make a final recommendation on what could be India’s first commercially-grown genetically modified food crop.
The GEAC comprises of government officials and scientists, housed under the environment ministry. It appraises the environmental and public health hazards of conducting field trials of genetically engineered crops, of their release for open planting by farmers and consumption by people. It is headed by special secretary in the environment ministry and its recommendations are only rarely opposed by the government. Any GM crop, including food crops like mustard, are required to go through two levels of safety tests including field trials, called Biosafety Research Level I and II trials, before they can be appraised for commercial cropping by GEAC. Both the trial stages have been completed for the GM Mustard.
Sources in the government confirmed that the GEAC had discussed the GM Mustard case in its meeting in January first week when the developers of the GM mustard were asked to make a presentation. Then a sub-committee of experts was set up to examine the biosafety and other data. The sub-committee is scheduled to submit its report on February 2 after which the full GEAC will meet on February 5 to conclude its deliberations.
Neither the agenda of the scheduled meeting in February nor the records of the proceedings of the January meeting have been put in public domain following a practice now formally established in the ministry. The chairman of the GEAC – a senior IAS official from the environment ministry – had earlier informed other members that the committee would put out only brief summarised points of the decisions of GEAC meeting for public consumption. This decision was put on record in a GEAC meeting and emerged in public domain later through an RTI. He had also informed that the detailed proceedings of GEAC would be made available only if someone asks for them through RTI. The detailed proceedings of the January meeting, where the commercial cultivation of GM Mustard was discussed, have also been denied in response to an RTI and the summary decisions are yet to be put out.
The environment ministry has also denied access to the results of the biosafety trials conducted on GM mustard. The GEAC is required to assess the results of these trials to make its decision on the commercial release of GM mustard seeds to farmers. The release of such existing data for all crops was mandated by the apex courts and then was disclosed by the government for Bt Brinjal as well. But, in the case of GM mustard case the environment ministry, replying to an RTI, has said that the biosafety results would not be released, because the “biosafety dossier of GM mustard pertains to third party.”
The Central Information Commission, too, had concluded in a case pertaining to biosafety data records on Bt Brinjal that the RTI law allows disclosure of such information “if public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm to the protected interests.” It concluded that toxicity allergenicity of any product to be put on large scale field trial is a matter of overriding public interest. It asked that such data be made available for all agricultural crops before any “massive field trial”. The GM mustard crop appraisal is now at the stage beyond even field trials and is being considered for commercial release. An appeal against the denial of biosafety data on GM mustard has been lying before the CIC for months now.
In 2008 the government had committed to the Supreme Court that such biosafety data would be put out in public domain for the trials being conducted then for seven crops, which included GM mustard.
The particular variety of genetically modified mustard that is to be appraised has been developed by Deepak Pental and his team at Delhi University. It is a herbicide tolerant variety, a kind of technology that the majority report of the Technical Expert Committee of the Supreme Court had strictly recommended against. But, the apex court has not yet decided on the matter.
Pental has consistently advocated that his research would provide higher yields. He has acknowledged that the crossing of the transgenic gene to other non-GM mustard varieties is expected but not unsafe.
At the same time he has reportedly recommended that the farmers in eastern India should not be growing the variety and seeds come with labels on where they should be grown. Critics of the GM mustard crop have warned that the seed is being cleared without the evidence of its health and environmental safety being put out for scrutiny.
Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has opposed growing GM mustard in a letter to the centre while officials and ministers from some BJP-governed states such as Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan have been reported in media stating that they are opposed to GM mustard.
These are some of the main states growing mustard in India and a clearance for the state governments is essential for permitting field trials or commercial planting of GM crops.
This article was originally published on Business Standard.