India's apex court on Thursday directed the government to respond to the proposals for setting up of an independent laboratory for carrying out relevant health and bio-safety tests of genetically modified (GM) crops and formation of a committee to address the problems of regulation for ensuring safety of GM crops.

The special bench of the Supreme Court consisting of the Chief Justice, KG Balakrishnan, Justice P Sathasivan and Justice JM Panchal observed that the government need to respond to the issues of health, environment and bio-safety raised in the two separate writ petitions - one filed by Aruna Rodrigues, PV Satheesh and Rajiv Baruah and the other by the Gene Campaign.

The next hearing of the case is slated in the last week of August, this year.

The counsel for the petitioner, Aruna Rodrigues and other, Prashant Bhushan said : “We had argued that the field trials and commercial release of GM crops, particularly, Bt brinjal should not be done unless and until proper regulations for ensuring safety aspects are put in p0lace.”

Advocate Sanjay Parekh representing Gene Campaign said : “There are various problems relating to the field trials of GM crops, particularly the disposal of the residues. He submitted to the Supreme Court that an expert committee be set up to examine the legal framework governing the research and use of GMOs in India with a specific terms of reference. He argued that an expert committee be formed same as it was done for hazardous waste. The Supreme Court in 1997 had ordered a high powered expert committee chaired by MGK Menon for regulation of hazardous waste.

Though India has so far approved only one GM crop - Bt cotton - for commercial cultivation, the there is growing debate in the country about the health and environment safety of transgenic crops. Recently there had been cases of sheep mortality on account of grazing over Bt cotton fields.

With parliamentary elections in process in the country, several political parties have expressed concerns over GM crops in their poll manifestoes. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in its election manifesto has said ; “No genetically modified seed will be allowed for cultivation without full scientific data on long-term effects on soil, production, and biological impact on consumers. All food and food products produced with genetically modified seeds will be branded as GM Food”. It also said that BJP on coming to power would provide special marketing assistance for organic produces.

The major Left party - CPM - assured that it would scrap the India-US Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture which is intended to promote GM crops in the country. The CPI (ML) said that no GM crop should be introduced in the country and there should be an immediate halt to field trials of GM crops. The Communist Party of India (CPI).favoured organic farming and demanded a moratorium on GM crops until all pending issues relating to the safety aspects are resolved. It also demanded scrapping of the India-US Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture.

The political parties from South India, particularly the PMK of the former Union health minister Anbumani Ramadoss has called for a ban on GM crops. Field trials of GM crops should not be permitted without long-term safety tests. Agriculture universities should not be allowed to carry out research on GM crops with private sector. Research priorities should be shifted towards upholding the traditional methods and for providing safe food while safeguarding country's sovereignty.

The AIADMK has called for “no promotion of GM seeds” while another southern party MDMK has called for a ban on GM seeds.