The Centre has told the Supreme Court that its permission for “environmental release” of genetically modified (GM) mustard is subject to “stringent terms and conditions to ensure environmental safeguards” of the country.

In an affidavit filed in the apex court on Thursday (November 10) in response to writ petitions filed by Gene Campaign and Aruna Rodrigues, the government has discounted the fears over honey bees being affected by the genetic variety. 

In an elaborate counter against the writs, the Centre said seed production and testing will require three seasons unless otherwise decided by ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research) before the (GM mustard) seeds are made available to farmers. 

Legal action for violation

During the period of approval, a post release monitoring committee (PRMC) will be set up by the GEAC (Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee) comprising 2 subject matter experts and a nominee each from RCGM (Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation) and GEAC. 

The PRMC will visit the sites where the seeds are tested at least once during each season and submit its report to the GEAC on compliance. It said usage of any formulation of herbicide is not permitted for cultivation in the farmer’s field under any situation.

“... such use would require necessary permission as per procedures and protocols for safety assessment of insecticides/pesticides by the Central Inseticide Board and Registration Committee (CIBRC),” the Centre said in its affidavit.

Any such usage with the approval of CIBRC would attract legal action under the Central Insecticide Act, 1968, and Rules, 1971 and Environmental Protection Act, 1986.

The ICAR will supervise the cultivation as per its guidelines, rules and regulations after which commercial cultivation will start. “(The) Commercial use will be subject to Seed Act, 1966 and related rules and regulation,” the government told the apex court.

Honey bee data

As a precautionary measure, data on honey bees and other pollinators will be generated during these two years under ICAR supervision to help generate additional data on the impact of GM mustard on these beings. “The approval may be revoked under Rule 13 (2) of the Rules, 1989, if any evidences of harmful effects of the approved GM mustard, such as damage to the environment, nature or health … come under the notice of GEAC and any non-compliance of any conditions stipulated by GEAC,” it said. 

Pointing to the cultivation of GE canola, which belongs to the mustard family, in Canada and Australia, harbouring the same genes permitted in the GM mustard trial in India, the Centre said in Canada the number of honey bee colonies has increased from 4.73 lakh in 1974 to 7.73 lakh in 2018 with the area under canola rising by seven times to 21.49 million acres during the period. 

In Australia, the presence of canola pollen content in honey was well below the one per cent threshold, it said, adding that there may not be any adverse impact on the honey bee population. However, as a precautionary measure, the impact of the GM crop on honey bee and other pollinators will be studied for two years under ICAR supervision. 

National interest

Referring to the Technical Expert Committee report submitted to the Supreme Court in 2012, the Centre said, “India has put in place a robust system based on science and involving technical experts throughout the process of research, confined trials as well as environmental release of GM crops.”

The government argued that GM mustard was being permitted in national and public interest as mustard is the most important edible oil with its yield stagnating. 

The Centre said the country imported a large quantity of oil produced from GM oilseeds. “...we annually produce 9.5 million tonnes of cottonseed (from GM cotton) and produce about 1.2 million tonnes of cotton(seed) oil consumed by human beings and about 6.5 million tonnes of cottonseed cake is consumed as animal feed,” it said.

The 55,000 tonnes of canola oil and 2.8 lakh tonnes of soyabean oil are imported annually with a large volume of it being produced from GM crops. “As India is importing and consuming oil derived from GM crops, opposition to such technology based on such unfounded fears of adverse impact is only hurting farmers, consumers and industry,” the affidavit said.

The Centre said the GM mustard trial will help develop better varieties, improve the per hectare yield by 25-30 per cent and tackle inflation caused by surging edible oil prices.