The Supreme Court raised concerns on Thursday regarding the apparent oversight by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) in not considering the reports submitted by the court-appointed Technical Experts Committee (TEC) on the biosafety of genetically modified (GM) crops. The GEAC, operating under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), is responsible for evaluating proposals related to the environmental release of GM organisms.
During the hearing, Justices BV Nagarathna and Sanjay Karol questioned Attorney General R Venkataramani about whether the GEAC had reviewed the TEC reports before approving the environmental release of the transgenic mustard hybrid DMH-11 on October 25, 2022. The court is currently addressing petitions filed by an activist and an NGO seeking a moratorium on the release of any genetically modified organisms (GMOs) until a comprehensive and transparent biosafety protocol is established and made public.
The petitions argue that the release of GMOs should be based on assessments conducted by independent expert bodies, with the results being accessible to the public. Additionally, the Centre is seeking the withdrawal of an oral undertaking made in November 2022, which pledged not to proceed with the commercial cultivation of GM mustard.
The Supreme Court had previously ordered a status quo on the GEAC’s decision to approve GM mustard for commercial cultivation on November 3, 2022, citing concerns about potential risks. The GEAC had recommended the environmental release of the transgenic hybrid mustard DMH-11 for seed production and field demonstration studies on its impact on honey bees and other pollinators.
Developed by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP) at Delhi University, DMH-11 utilizes genetic modification technology to enhance mustard hybridization. The hybrid mustard, containing genes from a soil bacterium called Bacillus amyloliquefaciens, demonstrated a 28% yield increase over conventional varieties in contained field trials conducted by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).
Opposition to GM crops, particularly GM mustard, has been voiced by various environmental groups, including the RSS-affiliated Swadeshi Jagran Manch. Concerns include the potential displacement of manual labor due to herbicide tolerance and the impact on honey bee populations. The GEAC, however, cites expert committee reports stating that the GM mustard is unlikely to adversely affect pollinators.
One possible motivation for accepting GEAC recommendations is the increasing edible oil import bill in India. With the country producing 8.5-9 million tonnes of edible oil annually and importing 14-14.5 million tonnes, the growing trade imbalance amounted to a record foreign exchange outgo of $18.99 billion in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2022.