After the Supreme Court order, the Indian government has further made the multi-location research trials of new genetically modified (GM) crops tougher.
The Centre recently banned MLRTs of GM crops in farmers' fields. These trials - which precede the large-scale field trials prior to commercial release - will henceforth have to be done by seed companies/institutions either in their own premises, research farms and long-lease lands or at farms belonging to state agricultural universities and Indian Council of Agricultural Research institutes.
At present, any new GM "event" or foreign gene construct incorporated in a host plant has to go through five stages before being accorded permission for commercial cultivation. In the first stage, the "event" itself has to take place in the laboratory, which involves transformation of a cotton or brinjal hybrid into a GM plant through insertion of a foreign gene.
In the second stage, the company is allowed to conduct glasshouse experiments of the new "event" (by growing the transformed plants in enclosed pots), which is then followed by controlled field trials to test out performance in natural conditions.
In the MLRT stage, the GM crop is planted in open fields in order to produce material that can be used for undertaking bio-safety studies, i.e. whether the grains or seeds produce any toxic or allergenic effect.
Till now, the MLRT was being done in selected farmers' fields on a limited scale. This was supposed to be done with informed consent from the farmers. But, with the Supreme Court in its May 8 judgment prescribing rigorous conditions difficult to be met in farmers' fields, it has been decided that MLRT would be held only in the fields belonging to companies or ICAR/SAU institutions.
The court had directed companies to maintain a minimum distance of 200 meters between the trial fields and the regularly cultivated fields, besides ensuring levels of detection of as low as 0.01 per cent (to confirm whether any 'contamination' of normal crop by the GM material has taken place).
It is difficult to find farmers who will offer part of their fields and not grow anything else within 200 metres. By allowing MLRTs only in company or institutional farms, there is no danger of any contamination to farmers' fields. So the need for observing detection levels of one in 10,000 is also dispensed with.
But that still leaves the question of what happens to the fifth stage of LST? How will companies find land for these trials that are to be conducted in different agro-climatic regions for evaluating agronomic performance and bio-safely on a bigger scale?