MAHYCO refuses to share safety data on GM crops
on april 23, the Delhi High Court will hear a case that is being dubbed as a "conflict between commercial interests and public health'. There are two main players: the Central Information Commission (cic) and the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Corporation Company (mahyco). Fearing that its data on field trials of genetically modified food crops will become public, the company in December 2007 had filed a petition against the commission in the high court.
The petition followed a Right To Information (rti) application. Divya Raghunandan of the international ngo Greenpeace had sought disclosure of gm food trials in the country. The application said that access to "safety' data is difficult when commercial interests are involved.
The case assumes importance because if the verdict favours industry, its demand to keep data away from the public will become stronger. Such instances are plenty in the drug industry where many companies refuse to share data on clinical trials on the pretext of protecting their commercial interests. Experts maintain that public health should not be compromised and hence the company should release the data.
Convoluted processRaghunandan in the rti to the Department of Biotechnology (dbt), under the Union Ministry of Science and Technology, asked for:
Details of locations of gm field trials of brinjal, okra, mustard and rice in the country
Data on tests carried out to ascertain toxicity and allergenicity of the crops
Minutes of dbt's Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation's (rcgm) meetings
"Though the application was filed in February 2006, we haven't got all the answers yet,' says Jai Krishna R of Greenpeace. "The company is further delaying access to information. The problem is the way things have shaped up since the rti was filed,' he says (see: Timeline).
mahyco, which has strong links with gm crop multinational Monsanto, says providing the data will violate the wto's Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights agreement (trips) which protects commercial rights of companies. It is not clear how providing safety data affects commercial interests. Prashant Bhushan, counsellor to Greenpeace, says that providing the data will not harm commercial interests because the information has already been patented.
It should be noted that both rti and trips have provisions for disclosure of such information in view of public good. "Keeping the information secret is not a remedy for checking unfair commercial use,' says Kajal Bharadwaj, a Delhi-based patent expert. "Anything that affects public health should be available for public scrutiny,' she adds. Amit Sen Gupta, another Delhi-based public health expert, agrees. "The case will set a precedent for many cases on commercial interests versus public health,' It is imperative that public health prevails, he adds.
A recent study on the antidepressent drug Prozac serves as an example of how data when made available to the public exposed irregularities in government regulations. Some researchers from the us, uk and Canada used the Freedom of Information law in the us to access details on clinical trials of several antidepressants, including Prozac, from the us Food and Drug Administration. Their analysis showed that Prozac did not help patients much.
Complete disclosureLittle is known about gm crops in the country. The only information available to the public is through the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee's (geac) website. geac is the apex committee under the union Ministry of Environment and Forests.
Ramesh V Bhat, advisor, food safety at the World Health Organization, who analyzed the data available on bt brinjal trials on geac's website, said he could not ascertain the safety of the gm crop from the information. Jai Krishna says complete data is a must. He points out that, in June 2005, Greenpeace Germany won a case against seed giant Monsanto which, like mahyco, tried to hide data on gm maize saying it was confidential. While analyzing the data, French researchers found that the crop could damage liver and kidney in rats.
Sanjay Deshpande, deputy general manager, mahyco, refused to comment, saying the matter was "in court'. Member of dbt's appellate authority, S Natesh, also chose not to speak. Aruna Rodrigues, an anti- gm activist, says, "The case exposes a weakness in the rti act. It should have a provision that does not allow appeals in the court. Appeals only delay the process.' mahyco's case seems to be a delaying tactic because it says dbt did not inform it about the rti application in time for them to prepare a case.
Greenpeace is planning to file a petition in the Delhi High Court to ensure the case doesn't get delayed.