Public Interest Litigation to Prevent GM Seeds in India

Jasdeep Bal is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

The Human Rights Law Network (where I am summer interning) utilizes public interest litigation (PIL) as their primary weapon to fight for human rights. The People’s Patent Group, under the umbrella of HRLN, is not a priority, however, as HRLN seems to have their hands full at the moment with securing maternal rights, rights for HIV/AIDS positive people, dalit rights, and right to food and healthcare, to name a few initiatives. As a result, issues involving GM seeds are not actively fought. As a matter of fact, I have not met a single person working for the People’s Patent Group, aside from Nigel D’Souza, my colleague-intern from Osgoode. HRLN therefore expects the interns to devise their own research proposal and submit a deliverable that will (hopefully) be useful to HRLN in furthering a PIL.

My area of interest was GM seed patents and the social, economic, and legal issues created by such patents. To focus on a project that would be useful to HRLN, I began by reading and analyzing a PIL on the biosafety of GMOs that was filed in the Supreme Court of India in 2005. Several issues came to light in this petition. Firstly, I noticed that very little scientific background was provided. As the name implies, GMOs are genetically altered organisms that are engineered to enhance a certain genetic trait (or to suppress a trait). For thousands of years, traditional farmers have been ‘genetically manipulating’ their seeds without actually knowing it, by planting certain seeds and discarding others. The process of freely trading and planting seeds with other farmers has allowed for a genetic diversity that provides the farmer with the benefit of a strong crop.

Today, companies like Monsanto are able to modify the genes of seed varieties in a way that is much less subtle than the traditional farmers freely trading and planting seeds over generations. Without any scientific explanation, the PIL stated that these GM seeds are deemed hazardous to the environment and to people by scientists across the board (neither does the PIL source their information or name scientists…). Furthermore, the PIL seemed to confuse or blur the issue by stating that the GM safety standards, although good, are not properly applied and many GM products that would otherwise fail are deemed safe to eat (this argument seems to imply that if GM safety standards are applied adequately, then GM seeds would be safe to eat?).

Thus, my experience at HRLN in my first few weeks made me aware of the following: First, that the PPG is virtually nonexistent at the moment and that my research needs to be useful to the PPG in initiating a future PIL; and secondly, that any information in a PIL needs to be sourced; and third, that it is important to separate and compartmentalize the legal issues for simplicity sake. After discussing with Colin Gonsalves, the head advocate at HRLN, I decided that my goal with the PPG will be to produce a short internal document that will serve to educate the lawyers (briefly) on the issues surrounding GMOs as well as emphasizing the need to adequately source and provide the legal issues at hand when filing a PIL. The hope from my end is that my work here will be useful, if even in a small way, in creating a PIL in the near future.