SCO Daily: SC Contemplates Hitting Pause on GM Mustard

The GM mustard debate continued at the SC. Does GM mustard pose health risks, or are the concerns a disagreement among scientists?


Last month, we told you about an ongoing debate over the use of Genetically Modified Mustard in India at the Supreme Court. Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and B.V. Nagarathna spent the week hearing final arguments in activist Aruna Rodrigues’ challenge to the Ministry of Environment and Forests’ recent decision to grant approval for commercial cultivation of Genetically Modified (GM) Mustard in five states. Does GM Mustard pose a threat to the environment? Why did Ministry approve their use? Stay tuned to find out. 

Genetically Modified Organisms (or GMOs) have been a hotly contested issue in the Supreme Court since 2004. An NGO called Gene Campaign filed the first PIL challenging a GMO, followed by petitions from Rodrigues and others who approached the Court in 2005. The PILs asked the court to direct the government to be transparent with the results of field trials conducted on GM crops. The PIL also asked the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) to come up with a rigorous biosafety protocol before granting clearance to GMOs.

What potential dangers do GMOs pose?  Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for Ms. Rodrigues, argued that the proposed ‘herbicide-tolerant’ GM mustard absorbs the herbicides sprayed on the plant.  If consumed, it may lead to health problems because of the toxicity of the herbicide.

Mr. Bhushan stated a new gene is created in the process of cultivating GM mustard. This causes a plant to create new proteins that may come with additional problems, like increased toxicity and allergenicity. He argued that many European countries have banned genetically modified organisms (GMO) due to these inherent dangers. 

Mr. Bhushan also highlighted GM mustard’s effect on natural pollination. The crop may be harmful to insects such as honeybees which are crucial to the ecosystem and natural crop pollination. These consequences are in direct contravention to the ‘precautionary principle’ in environmental law. This is a legal approach which emphasises caution, and rigorous reviews of new innovations and activities if there is suspicion that it may cause environmental damage. 

With an eye towards these possible consequences, Mr. Bhushan stressed on the Supreme Court appointed Expert Committee’s recommendation from 2013 an indefinite and complete ban on herbicide-tolerant crops.

Senior Advocate Sanjay Parikh appeared next for the NGO Gene Campaign, and referred to the 2013 Expert Committee report as well. He argued that there are major gaps in India’s agricultural  regulatory system and it would not be advisable to conduct more field trials until they are addressed. He also submitted that access to herbicide tolerant crops is likely to reduce employment opportunities to women who are employed in weeding operations.

Replying to Mr. Prashant Bhushan’s arguments, Attorney General R. Venkatramani argued that the GM Mustard debate boils down to a disagreement between scientists. He stated that such disagreements pave the way for science to evolve. Mr. Venkatramani took the Court through how other countries have handled GM crops to argue that there is more than one opinion on the topic. The AG pointed out that the Court can interfere in cases where the rule of law is to be upheld, however it cannot get into the accuracy of the science involved. The Bench, at this point, told the AG that the Technical Experts Committee was constituted on its orders and hence it can interfere to a limited extent. 

The AG took the Court through various scientific perspectives on the advantages of GM Mustard. He argued that the new GM hybrid, with higher crop output, can enhance agricultural income and reduce foreign dependency for the economy at large. 

He then argued that the permission granted to cultivate GM Mustard was based on genuine reasoning.The Bench asked if a scientific expert is instructing the AG, stating that they needed more clarity on whether GM Mustard is herbicide tolerant. In response, the AG read from the Union’s affidavit, according to which GM mustard has not been developed to be herbicide-tolerant. Further, the AG elaborated upon the various deliberations that took place over an 11-year period  to determine the feasibility of cultivating GM Mustard in India. 

The Bench questioned the AG on the necessity to urgently cultivate GM mustard at this stage. The Bench also asked if the cultivation can wait until a better understanding of GM technology is achieved to avoid irretrievable damage.

Justice Nagarathna pointed out that Indian farmers are not like Western farmers when it comes to awareness about genes and mutations.

The Attorney General responded to this by musing about why the petitioner was against the release of GM Mustard. He stated that it was natural to have concerns about it, however the Petitioners are mounting an ideological opposition. The AG  said the petitioners have not given a compelling reason as to why GM Mustard should not be released. 

The AG is expected to continue arguing the case on Wednesday, to explain the Government’s urgency to approve cultivation of GM Mustard. 

For more on the Supreme Court, visit the SCObserver website.