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Call for immediate halt to GM trials in India

Controversy over the benefits and regulation of genetically modified (GM) crops in India has been heightened by the submission of a damning report to the Supreme Court on 17 October.

The report by a five-member Technical Expert Committee (TEC) appointed by the Supreme Court recommends a ten-year moratorium on field trials of GM crops, including already widely cultivated Bt cotton.

The Supreme Court commissioned the report to help it make a decision on a petition from an anti-GM group filed in May 2012 to stop GM crop use in India. The TEC’s recommendations are not binding but will be considered by the court as it resumes on 29 October.

The committee found that “the present regulatory and protocol for conducting the field trials is unsatisfactory and inadequate” and hence requires major changes over the next decade.

Its concerns include “conflicts of interests” within the regulatory structure. According to the report, the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation, a major GM regulatory arm, needs to be located outside the Department of Biotechnology, the mandate of which covers development of biotechnology products, including GM crops.

Other recommended changes include re-examination of all bio-safety data by international experts and establishment of a scientific panel to assess the safety of potential field trials.

The report is the third report on GM crop safety and regulation in India since August.

The TEC agrees with the recommendation of a cross-parliamentary panel report published on 9 August that also warned of contradictions in the regulation of field trials. However, the Scientific Advisory Council under the prime minister’s office reached an opposite conclusion in a report on 9 October, warning that the debate “is demoralizing and isolating our scientists in the sector” and “will also keep the brightest away from this field of research”.

The other two reports are being considered by the government and relevant ministries.