Decision on GM mustard deferred

A farmer casts urea on her mustard field in Allahabad
Amid unprecedented attention, protests by activists and a notice for contempt of Supreme Court orders, the environment ministry’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) deferred a decision on allowing commercial cropping of genetically modified (GM) mustard.

The committee met on Friday for appraisal of GM mustard crop after a sub-group had submitted a report assessing the biosafety test results but deferred a decision.

The ministry did not put out the agenda of the meeting or the minutes of the previous meeting or the biosafety data even on the date of the meeting.

Speaking after the meeting had concluded, minister Prakash Javadekar told the media, “More information has been asked of the developers of GM mustard seed.

There is a legal issue as well. Someone has gone to the Supreme Court. The court has asked us for information. These kinds of information come to public domain, so everyone shall get it.”

Before the interaction with media, Javadekar had met civil society activists gathered at the ministry, protesting against the unannounced meeting. He assured he would meet them separately later to discuss their concerns at length. He also assured another GEAC meeting where they would be invited after he has had the opportunity to discuss their concerns. When asked about the government withholding the biosafety data, the minister said the government would state its position on the matter to the court in reply to the contempt notice.

Before the minister met the civil society groups, the chair of the GEAC told the civil society groups that the minutes of the earlier meetings had not been put out as too few meetings had taken place and the biosafety could not be put out because of intellectual property right issues.  Though, the Central Information Commission had earlier set aside these riders asking that biosafety data be put out in larger public interests as dictated by the RTI Act. The data had been put out in the case of Bt Brinjal, the first genetically modified food crop to be considered by Union government (then the UPA) for commercial cropping.

When asked by media about the biosafety data on GM Mustard not being put in public domain, Javadekar said,  “See, let me make it very clear the meetings of GEAC or expert appraisal committees (for environmental clearance) or any other committee are not like a cricket match where there will be a running commentary. So, whatever is legally required will be put on web.” When further asked if the ministry was legally required to put out the data, the minister added, “We always follow rules and the regulations.

At the moment the recommendatory decision on commercial release of GM Mustard lies with the GEAC. The minister has to approve the recommendation for it to be final. The GEAC is chaired by a senior IAS officer posted in the environment ministry and majority of the members on board are government officials and scientists.  Four members on the committee that Business Standard spoke to refused to divulge details saying that they had been asked to maintain confidentiality of the proceedings.

A day before the meeting pressure had mounted on the government with more than a 100 scientists from across the country and various institutions and universities writing to the Centre against commercial release of GM Mustard.

On February 5, the ‘Coalition for GM-Free India’, an NGO, put out a media release that its functionary in Kerala had been called by an environment ministry official a night before to attend the GEAC meeting next morning on February 5 in Delhi. The NGO declined to meet, it claimed, asking for transparency and putting the biosafety data in public domain. Business Standard could not verify this independently.

The minister after the February 5 meeting of GEAC also said, “We are doing all due deliberations but we cannot stop science from progressing. We cannot starve our population. But if there are other alternatives to increase production and productivity... our Prime Minister always talks about organic farming, using bio    -technology in agriculture. At the same time scientific methods are also important. Therefore we shall take decisions only after due deliberations and not rush through.”

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