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[NEW DELHI] A technical expert committee, appointed by the Supreme Court of India to advise upon open field trials for genetically modified (GM) crops, has recommended a ten-year moratorium on all Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) food crop trials.

Bt crops are GM plants that kill insects using a toxic protein from the Bt soil bacterium. Currently there is a moratorium in India on Bt brinjal (eggplant) — imposed in February 2010 by the then environment minister, Jairam Ramesh — but open field trials for other food crops are permitted.

The committee was established in May this year, in response to a petition filed by environmental activist Aruna Rodrigues. Last week (18 October) the committee launched its report, scheduled to come up before the supreme court next week (29 October), during the public interest litigation filed by Rodrigues.

The report is the latest in a series of contradicting recommendations on the issue of GM crops. It comes on the heels of ­— and is at odds with — advice from the prime minister's scientific advisory council on biotechnology and agriculture, which met on 9 October.

But it is in line with a report by a parliamentary committee on the cultivation of GM food crops: submitted in August, this report recommends that GM field trials should be discontinued and research on GM crops conducted under strict regulation.

The technical committee's new report recommends overhauling the regulatory authorities that oversee GM trials, and revisiting regulations altogether, to ensure GM crops present no risk to human health or the environment.

It outlines the need for specifically designated and certified field trial sites, and says that sufficient mechanisms must be established for monitoring trials before any field trials can resume. It also stipulates the need for preliminary biosafety testing, and recommends appointing an independent panel made up of scientists qualified in the evaluation of biosafety data.

Suman Sahai, chair ofthe Delhi-based research and advocacy organization, Gene Campaign, welcomed the interim report, saying in a press release that it "has pointed out the serious lacunae [gaps] in the regulatory framework for genetically modified organisms [GMOs]."  

She also welcomed the report's elucidation of the need to consider the socioeconomic aspects of introducing GMOs, before taking any decisions.  

"In failing to consider the impact of a GM crop, for instance on organic farming, the Indian regulatory system completely ignores the interests of farmers who would lose their markets if contamination with the GM product were to take place," Sahai said.  

She added that several transgenic food crops are being developed with non-Bt genes, whose impacts "are even less understood than the Bt gene."

It is "crucial" that these are also brought into the ambit of the ten-year moratorium, Sahai said.

Link to press release on meeting of Scientific Advisory Council  

Link to parliamentary committee report on the regulation of GM crops