The campaign for public access to all biosafety data carried on by environmentalists and others has received a boost. In respect of genetically modified crops undergoing field trials, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has recently posted the data on Bt brinjal on its website, setting a healthy precedent. The posting of the raw data comes after a protracted battle with the regulatory body which appeared to be doing everything possible to delay or scuttle it. It all started in 2005 when public interest litigation was filed in the Supreme Court seeking public access to all the biosafety data. In the beginning of 2006, an NGO made a request under the Right to Information Act that the Department of Biotechnology provide biosafety data of all crops undergoing trials. But the DBT refused to divulge the information, arguing that under the Act it was not obligated to reveal details in cases involving commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property. But the hollowness of its stance stood exposed when it later permitted the appellant to scrutinise the data in person at the Ministry of Environment and Forests. The inherently misleading approach of the GEAC became sharply evident when it informed the Supreme Court that the data on Bt brinjal were posted on the website when in reality it had provided only the result summary.
Finally, it was the Supreme Court’s order in April that enabled the process of making available the data of Bt brinjal, which is at an advanced stage of field trials. This was after several attempts by the regulatory body and the company to block public access to the information, reluctant as they were to allow its disclosure before the transgenic brinjal is commercialised. The chastened GEAC in a sudden change of stand noted at its meeting in May that it did not view any of the biosafety information provided by the company to be confidential. It is not clear if the data posted on its website include the results of the tests that were required to be done by the expert committee. It is imperative that the regulator puts the trials on hold for a specific period so that the data are studied in depth. Besides, the biosafety results of other transgenic food crops that are now in various stages of field trials should also be thrown open for public scrutiny. The failure to allow public access to critical data, especially valuable for the farming community, will create unnecessary suspicion as regards the motives underlying the reluctance to be transparent.
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