The Supreme Court has refused the Indian government’s request to proceed with the environmental release of genetically modified (GM) mustard. The court stated that the impact on the environment and ecology needs to be thoroughly examined. The additional solicitor general argued that allowing the release would have significant policy implications for food security, as India heavily relies on edible oil imports.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to allow the government to go ahead with the environmental release of genetically modified (GM) mustard, saying it needs to be examined first as “environment and ecology have to be maintained”.

A bench led by Justice BV Nagarathna refused to discharge the government from its earlier assurance that it would not take the process forward without the court’s nod. “If we discharge you, what remains then in the matter… Environmental harm cannot be reversed later… we have to understand the whole problem,” Justice Nagarathna told additional solicitor general Aishwarya Bhati, who sought the environmental release of GM mustard as the growing season is fast approaching in September and October.

Bhati argued that there are huge policy implications in terms of food security as the country is heavily dependent on imports for edible oil. “Stakes are huge. This is not for any commercial release but for environmental release to carry out the research which has been on for 12 years now. Sowing in September/October will allow scientists to investigate,” Bhati argued, requesting the court to allow it to sow again so that its research does not go to waste.

“One year here or there does not matter. However environmental harm cannot be reversed. Next year, there will be another sowing season,” the bench said while posting the matter for further hearing on September 26.

Petitioners led by Gene Campaign and others, who were represented by counsel Prashant Bhushan and Sanjay Parikh, also objected to the Centre’s request, saying no field trials should be allowed as our regulatory measures are in “shambles”.

“If they want to do testing, they can do it in greenhouse conditions. Otherwise, it will lead to contamination,” Bhushan contended. The entire process of research and testing should not only be halted but whatever they have sown should be uprooted and disposed of, Parikh said while accusing the government of violating its undertaking given to the court.

The petitioners had last year sought a moratorium on the commercial release of GM mustard after it was cleared in October by the government. The apex court then asked the parties to maintain the status quo on the cultivation of the oil seed.

The government had last week filed its status report on the production of GM mustard. It told the Supreme Court that a post-release monitoring committee under the chairmanship of PK Chakrabarty, a former member of the Agricultural Scientists Recruitment Board, did not report any non-compliance with stipulated conditions regarding the environmental release of the GM mustard hybrid, DMH-11.

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