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[New Delhi] The Supreme Court of India last month banned any new field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops in the country to allow it to examine potential conflicts of interest in the approval mechanism.

The court's decision followed a public interest petition filed in May 2005 by four activists that requested the ban, saying that India's biosafety protocols are a serious threat to public health and the environment.

According to the petitioners' lawyer, Prashant Bhushan, the petition mainly argues that field trials should only be allowed once comprehensive, scientific, reliable and transparent biosafety tests have been carried out.

He said that the current practice in India is to allow field trials to precede such rigorous biosafety testing, leading to irreversible contamination. This is compounded by absent or lax monitoring and accountability mechanisms.

The case follows campaigns by civil society organisations over the safety of field trials of the country's first transgenic food crop, Bt brinjal — a vegetable also known as aubergine or eggplant genetically modified to resist insect pests.

These protests forced the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) — whose prior permission is needed for GM trials — to form a panel of experts to give a final decision on the trials.

But the panel, as well as the GEAC itself, was criticised by civil society groups for not being sufficiently independent.

The petitioners in the hearing last month recommended five independent experts to be added to the GEAC, but the government refused.

The court has asked the government to respond within two weeks, putting its objections on record, and suggesting any other names from the government's side whose credentials must be verified.

In a subsequent hearing on 12 October the court sustained the ban, but gave permission for a limited field trial of GM mustard.

"The unfolding of the case so far clearly indicates that the court has taken on board the main arguments of the petition,'' says Kavitha Karuganti of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Secunderabad, one of the groups which has raised questions about the safety of GM crops.

The GEAC has already approved a number of field trials for a new variety of GM cotton that has escaped the scope of the court ban.

The activists who filed the petition are Aruna Rodrigues, economist consultant at Sunray Harvesters; Rajeev Baruah, managing director at Maikaal bioRe; PV Satheesh, director of the Deccan Development Society; and Devinder Sharma, agricultural scientist and writer.