Predictably, the recommendation by an experts' panel appointed by the Supreme Court - that trials of genetically modified (GM) crops should be halted for 10 years - has stirred a hornet's nest. Such a moratorium would include ongoing trials and the court rejected it.
This follows on the heels of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture's 492-page report published in August which asked for the banning of GM food crops in the country. The Supreme Court set up the expert panel shorty after the report was published. The Court is set to let its ruling known, very soon.
The private biotech industry has its lobbies, like the Association of Biotech-Led Enterprises-Agriculture Group (ABLE-AG), which have invested Rs 500 crore on research here.
The public sector has invested nearly twice as much and the Agriculture Ministry is exhorting both these lobbies to agitate against the ban. In 2010, the Minister of Environment & Forests (MoEF) Jairam Ramesh- after extensive public hearings - imposed an indefinite moratorium on the commercial introduction of GM brinjal.
Last year, Bihar CM Nitish Kumar wrote to Ramesh, who asked the Genetic Engineering Advisory Committee (GEAC) to withdraw permission for field trials in the state. Sharad Pawar tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Kumar to change his mind.
While by any reckoning a ban for 10 years appears excessive, since biotechnology would change appreciably in the interim, the concern expressed by MPs and, in turn, the panel of experts, cannot be dismissed. As it happens, there is a precedent for taking on board such views.
When it was deliberating on how to combat the capital's air pollution, the MoEF constituted the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority in 1998 which included environmentalist Anil Agarwal, along with a top Maruti executive and a representative of the Automobile Manufacturers Association of India. It was this body's recommendation that eventually led - for the first time in any city in the world -- to switching from diesel to compressed natural gas in all public vehicles.
Public concern has been mounting over the cavalier approach to the authorization of trials. According to the Indian GMO Research Information System, as many as 74 crops are being researched at present. Fruits include pomegranate, banana and papaya; vegetables include potato, tomato and capsicum. At one meeting, the GEAC approved of no fewer than 144 applications and precious little monitoring of these trials follows.
Often, the GEAC isn't even aware where the trials are being held. This month, the Maharashtra government has appointed nuclear scientist Dr Anil Kakodkar to head a committee to decide on field trials: his expertise obviously has no connection with biotechnology, but he is a vocal supporter of nuclear power and would almost certainly endorse GM crops.
The danger of unsupervised trials is that, among other hazards, nearby fields may be contaminated by GM strains, without strict precautions being taken. In March last year, the government-owned Pusa Institute in Samastipur district, Bihar, hurriedly uprooted a 540-sq-metre plot of GM corn, which was insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant to pesticide developed by the multinational world GM crop leader, Monsanto, and moong or green gram, planted on the site instead.
According to Monsanto, the GEAC had written to it, withdrawing permission for such trials and the Pusa scientists acted in haste.
In September, a team of scientists from the Institute of Biology headed by Gilles-Eric Seralini at the University of Caen in France published the results of a two-year study based on feeding 200 rats with a herbicide-tolerant maize developed by Monsanto.
The strain resists Monsanto's extensively used herbicide known as Roundup which, the company claims, kills weeds without harming crops. Rats fed on this strain of maize died much earlier than the rats in the control group and developed hormonal and sex-related changes. Half the male rats and 70% of the females died prematurely, compared with 30% and 20% respectively in the control group.
This is reminiscent of the controversy generated with similar results demonstrated by Dr Arpad Pusztai from the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1998. In a TV programme, he made public his research on rats fed with GM potatoes which damaged their stomach lining and immune system. He was suspended and his contract not renewed, but his research led to the questioning of this form of biotechnology worldwide.
This year, the European Food Safety Authority Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms has said that "novel hazards" could be associated with transgenic crops that will not be present in normal ones. In July last year, Euro MPs have voted to give EU member states more flexibility to restrict or ban genetically modified crops on environmental or health grounds. Currently a type of maize is the only GM food cultivated commercially in the EU.
But it is banned in six EU states: Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg. The protagonists of GM maize point out that some 350 million consumers in North America have been consuming GM food crops. However, in many environmental issues, the US is not as proactive as Europe where all foods have to be labelled if they are GM.
The only commercial GM crop in this country is the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co (Mahyco) in which Monsanto has a stake and which, critics like the Delhi-based Gene Campaign allege, violated the rules and used an unapproved cotton hybrid as a "refugia" or a prescribed area where a non-GM crop is grown.
In August, the Maharashtra government cancelled the licence of Mahyco for selling Bt (GM) seeds due to complaints that it was creating an artificial shortage and charging higher prices. In the drought-prone region of Vidarbha, it is now established that Bt cotton is one, though by no means the only, reason for a virtual epidemic of farmers' suicides.
The Maharashtra government has asked the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and Institute of Rural Management in Anand to conduct a socio-economic survey of the impact of Bt cotton, grown in 27 districts of the state. It has allegedly been causing losses of up to Rs 2000 crore in a bad year, due to a variety of reasons.
The government has acknowledged the findings of independent studies correlating farmers' suicides with Bt cotton.
Clearly, given the unpreparedness of the Indian state to deal with this potentially toxic technology, the precautionary principle has to apply. This is what, for instance, has guided the central government's strictures on the use of the pesticide endosulfan which has caused genetic abnormalities when sprayed in cashew plantations in Kerala and Karnataka. By all means, the moratorium should be reduced from a decade, provided the Centre and states take adequate steps to monitor the introduction of this technology.