The Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee’s (TEC) interim report, submitted in the matter of a public interest litigation (PIL) pertaining to genetically modified organisms (GMO), has faced criticism mainly from the financial media and industry bodies.

However, the critics haven’t read the report accurately, when they say it would put an end to scientific research or seed breeding using molecular biology tools. The report is not about modern biotechnology; it is about transgenics/GMOs.

Risky research

Two, the TEC is not calling for all research to stop, but for it to be need-based and sequential in terms of risk assessment and testing. All trials should be contained, until preliminary risk assessment is done.

Field trials in the name of research should not end up creating risks!

Three, the report hasn’t said anything new by cautioning against transgenics exhibiting herbicide tolerance (HT) traits or in crops where India is the Centre of Origin/Diversity.

Similarly, prioritisation of crops or traits for which transgenic tools are to be deployed — if at all — is something that was recommended even by the Task Force on Agri-Biotechnology under M.S. Swaminathan set up by the Agriculture Ministry.

Its report, in 2003, had said: “Biotech applications, which do not involve transgenics such as bio-pesticides, bio-fertilisers and bio-remediation agents, should be accorded high priority.

Transgenic approach should be considered as complimentary and resorted to when other options to achieve the desired objectives are either not available or not feasible”.

Everything scientific about it

The TEC has suggested that any deliberate release of GMOs through open field trials should be allowed only after preliminary assessment of bio-safety, which isn’t the case now. Also, such approval should come from a regulatory body devoid of conflict of interest.

The trials should be in designated locations with monitoring mechanisms in place to avoid any contamination risks. All of these are sensible and scientific recommendations on an extremely controversial technology. It is not that without this technology the country wouldn’t progress!

The TEC report potentially has legal backing, unlike similar recommendations made earlier that could not be implemented.

This Committee, moreover, has experts known for their unbiased and scientific views, who were nominated by both the petitioners and respondents to the PIL. Further, it undertook elaborate stakeholder consultations.

The TEC report essentially acknowledges that given the living nature of the technology and the state of regulatory affairs here, field trials of GMOs themselves pose risks — of contamination and even leakage, including in crops for which we are the Centre of Origin/Diversity.

Its analysis is also not very different from the Parliamentary Standing Committee’s, whose report was endorsed by members across parties, including the ruling Congress.

Since the TEC is a Court-appointed Committee, one expects the learned judges to accept its recommendations and pass the right orders.

(The author is Convenor, Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture.)

Also read: >Should field trials of GM crops be banned? - NO