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REGULATION / APPROVAL: Indian Supreme Court upholds importance ofbiosafety

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------
TITLE:  Supreme Court upholds importance of biosafety
SOURCE:, India
AUTHOR: Kavitha Kuruganti
DATE:   21.05.2007

Supreme Court upholds importance of biosafety

In the orders passed after the May 8th hearing in the GMOs PIL filed  
by Aruna Rodrigues and three others, the Supreme Court of India  
clearly upheld once again the importance of biosafety when it comes to  
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The Union of India applied for  
a vacation of the Court's orders in September 2006 which directed the  
GEAC (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, the apex regulatory  
authority in India) ,,to withhold (any) approvals till further  
directions are issued".

In September, the Court was not inclined to stop ongoing field trials  
which included 90 Multi-Location Trials (MLTs), 32 experimental seed  
production, 18 strip trials and 5 pollen flow studies for a variety of  
crops  these included Rice, Potato, Okra, Tomato, Groundnut, Brinjal,  
Cauliflower, Cabbage, Mustard, Castor, Corn and Sorghum in addition to  
GM cotton. The GEAC's meeting minutes between December 2006 - February  
2007 showcase the inability of the apex regulatory authority to keep  
track of where the field trials are happening  if field trial  
locations are not known, how was monitoring taking place of either the  
efficacy of the technology or the biosafety aspects related to  
conducting the trials was not answered in any forum by the regulators  
so far.

As sowings for Kharif 2007 draw close, the GM 'promoter-regulators' of  
the country along with the industry rushed to the Supreme Court  
praying for a vacation of the September orders, arguing that adequate  
framework exists to regulate GMOs in the country. The petitioners had  
enough evidence built to show that on the scientific front as well as  
the institutional front, the biosafety regime in India is seriously  
lacking and that field trials in a business-as-usual mode were going  
to jeopardize our environment irreversibly through contamination.

On May 8th 2007, the Supreme Court heard the petitioners (and the  
impleadment applications by farmers and rice exporters in support of  
the petition) and the respondents (the regulators as well as the  
biotech seed industry associations who had impleaded recently) in a  
nearly-daylong hearing. In its Orders at the end of the day, the Court  
did not grant the Government of India its prayer for a vacation on the  
ban on field trials. Instead, it clarified that if any trials are  
going on or are to go on pursuant to approvals granted between  
2/5/2006 and 22/9/2006, these trials would be subject to additional  
conditionalities  that the GEAC should ensure that there is no  
contamination from these trials to other fields close-by. In all the  
trials which are being conducted, the name of the scientist who will  
be responsible and other details for all aspects of the trials should  
be reported to the GEAC and there should be a regular supervision by  
them. The Court also ordered that prior to bringing out the GM  
material from the greenhouse for conduct of open field trials, the  
approved institution should submit a validated, event-specific test  
protocol at an LOD of at least 0.01% to detect and confirm that there  
has been no contamination. The Court also asked to see the toxicity  
and allergenicity data, if any, related to Bt Cotton while allowing  
GEAC to permit commercial releases for four approved species of GM  
cotton. However, it ordered that no further GM cotton species be  
approved. By these historic orders, the Supreme Court has once again  
upheld the importance of biosafety issues related to GM crops.

What was surprising to see was the alacrity by which the Ministry of  
Environment & Forests, housing the GEAC, put out a press release the  
next day which misreports the Court's orders in an irresponsible  
fashion as a vacation of the September 2006 orders. The reality is  
quite the contrary. Field trials, if any flowing out of approvals  
during May and September 2006, will be under stricter conditions. In  
addition to the Court's orders, GEAC, under pressure from farmers'  
unions and civil society groups had already announced that field trial  
applications will be considered only if the applicant announces  
beforehand where the exact location of each such trial would be and  
with the prior written consent of the Panchayat in whose jurisdiction  
such a trial is proposed to be taken up. Further, the DBT and GEAC  
have also announced that no GM Rice experimentation will take place in  
the Basmati belt of India. It is however not clear how they intend to  
prevent GM rice seed being tested elsewhere in the country from  
reaching the basmati belt, given their pathetic history of regulating  
illegal Bt Cotton proliferation from Gujarat.

Meanwhile, there are various developments against GM crops in  
different states of the country. In Tamil Nadu, after the PMK (Dr  
Anbumani Ramadoss, Union Health Minister represents this Party), it is  
now the turn of AIADMK to take a formal stand against GM crops. In a  
massive rally in Coimbatore on May 5th, several legislators and  
parliamentarians belonging to AIADMK demanded that the Central and  
Tamil Nadu state governments ban GM crops.

In Andhra Pradesh, the government is refusing to compromise on the  
pricing issue related to Bollgard II and is insisting on allowing  
sales only if the seed is priced at Rs. 750/ a packet. Further, the  
animal husbandry department here recommended the stoppage of sales of  
Bt Cotton seeds until it investigates into the phenomenon of toxicity  
to animals after grazing on Bt Cotton fields.

Elsewhere, after the Chattisgarh government, it is now the turn of the  
West Bengal government to order an inquiry into the field trials that  
had happened in the state during Kharif 2006. The Chattisgarh  
government, through a formal inquiry, pointed out several  
objectionable violations in Mahyco's GM Rice and GM Okra trials in  
Raipur last year.

All in all, despite some misleading and gloating headlines and  
editorials in several newspapers, the biotech industry and the GM  
regulators have an uphill task ahead in the coming year, having the  
Supreme Court, the state governments and various political parties  
holding them accountable, unlike in the past.

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