States lack facilities to monitor GM crop trials, apex court told (28/7/2007)

States lack facilities to monitor GM crop trials, apex court told
Padamaparna Ghosh Mint (a business daily of The Hindustan Times), July 28 2007

*Many states are yet to form SBCCs which are critical for monitoring and inspection oif ongoing trials

New Delhi: An application filed by Aruna Rodrigues and others on Thursday before the Supreme Court under an earlier public interest litigation dating back to 2005 says that several Indian states do not have the required mechanism to monitor trials of genetically modified crops.

By not having this mechanism, the states are flouting a notification, issued in 1989 by the Union ministry of environment and forests. The application is significant because it comes in the wake of an order on 8 May by the Supreme Court that lifted an eight-month ban on field trials of genetically modified (GM) food crops, with some caveats.

Rodrigues's application says that the states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh are yet to constitute State Biotechnology Coordination Committees (SBCCs). These committees are critical for monitoring and inspecting ongoing field trials. According to information provided by Greenpeace and collated from the Department of Biotechnology (and presented in Mint on 14 May), six field trials began in Tamil Nadu in 2005 and 2006 and five in Andhra Pradesh. The status of these trials is not known.

According to the rules notified under the Environment Protection Act, the committees have the powers to inspect, investigate and take punitive action in case of violations of statutory provisions. The committees also have to periodically review the safety and control measures in the various industries and institutions handling genetically engineered organisms.

The application states that documents acquired through RTI applications show that these states do not have such committees or even know about field trials of GM crops. According to these documents, copies of which are with Mint, Kerala is not even sure if it has the committee or not, with the state’s agriculture department saying that a Kerala Biotechnology Commission, and not a coordination committee, has been formed, and the scientific department denying that any such committee has been formed.

Tamil Nadu has not formed the committee, according to a government officer in Tamil Nadu familiar with the matter. "There are no proposals either (to form a committee)," added the official who did not wish to be identified. The situation is the same in many other states. According to the Department of Biotechnology data previously published in Mint, in 2005 and 2006 alone, field trials of GM crops were launched in 15 states. And even states that have committees have flouted laws, says an environmental activist.

"Punjab has a committee, but it does not have any representation from the department of agriculture, which is mandated and critical," said Kavitha Kuruganti, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, a technology and policy research organisation based in Hyderabad. Punjab held its first meeting in 2005. West Bengal constituted its committee just two months back and Orissa in 2001.

Other RTI documents collected by the applicant show that Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh are ignorant about the trials happening in their respective states, although the Centre's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) is supposed to apprise the state governments of the approvals. The GEAC approves all trials of GM crops. In the 8 May order, the Supreme Court asked companies conductiong trials of GM crops to disclose toxicity and allergenicity of the crops, increased the distance between GM fields and regular fields to 200 mts to reduce chances of contamination, and said that a designated scientist would be responsible for meeting all conditions laid down by the court. The new appplication has asked the Supreme Court to direct the government to release data on possible contamination and test protocol to the public before it clears any more trials.

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