Last week, Veerappa Moily, the union minister of Environment and Forests, approved open-field testing of genetically modified crops. The decision comes six months after the Supreme Court recommended an indefinite moratorium on such trials, citing the need to develop better regulatory systems.

The characteristically evasive Moily says that he has merely released old minutes of a 2012 meeting of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee. The GEAC had in March 2012 approved basic biosafety research trials for 24 applications. Twenty of these were applications from private companies, while four were from public research institutes.

As Moily noted, the court in July 2013 had suggested an indefinite moratorium on testing but it did not issue any orders about the GEAC approvals. As a result, Moily is not exactly contravening the court. Even so, before any of the 24 applicants approved by the GEAC begin testing, they will have to seek the approval of their respective state governments.

Environmental activists greeted the decision with dismay.

“All the tests submitted so far were very inadequate in assessing the full range of biosafety impacts,” said Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist. “We have never said no to research and development, but until technical experts approve it, we need to wait.”

There are two forms of testing involved in GM crops. The culture is first developed in a lab and tested in a controlled environment. After it passes basic safety regulations, scientists plant a culture in a limited open area to assess how it reacts to the environment.

Much of the alarm against GM crops arises from a mistrust of corporate-sponsored research reports. As the science behind genetic splicing is relatively new, environmentalists are concerned that splicing DNA and injecting pest-resistant genes can have unexpected effects. This is particularly because no plant is an isolated organism, but functions within a vast ecosystem. It isn't clear what effect a GM plant could have on the other organisms that come in contact with it.

Shiva believes that lab testing has been inadequate and that until better regulatory systems are set in place, open-field tests must not be conducted.

However, biotechnologists argue that a basic number of field trials are essential for authorities to even understand what kind of regulations they will have to consider.

“The question is fundamentally wrong,” said Bhagirath Choudhary of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications. “If you don’t do a trial, how can you assess its environmental implications? These trials are to assess safety and impact on environment. We really don’t know yet whether it is beneficial or not, so it is important that trials be done.”

Critics point to various exploitative business practices that have accompanied the sales of GM crops. For instance, Monsanto, a "sustainable agriculture company", famously engineered a particular variety of soybean, Roundup Ready, that could only resist one pesticide, conveniently manufactured by Monsanto itself.

Monsanto's experiments with genetically modified Bt cotton in India were also not entirely positive. While yields increased phenomenally in areas such as Gujarat, which had access to deep reserves of water, drought-prone regions like Vidarbha were unable to match the high input costs required by the sensitive plant and many farmers became indebted. In addition, Mahyco, Monsanto’s Indian wing, sold only hybrid seeds. Farmers had to abandon their traditional practice of storing seeds for use from year to year and buy new ones each season, adding to their costs.

“Protests against these technologies is similar to protesting against one or a few truck companies by saying that the wheel is dangerous and that the wheel should be banned,” said K Vijayraghavan, secretary of the Department of Biotechnology. “Several rounds of trials, over some years are needed before final safety approval and subsequent seed approval by the appropriate authorities.”

He told that not all GM testing is intended to further commercial interests and that, “several laboratories in India and abroad, particularly in the  public sector, are working on climate resilient crops […] New generation GM technologies in which the commercial product with no foreign DNA are also being produced aiming at future requirement of both agriculture and public perception.”

Nevertheless, there have been allegations of misdoings against the GEAC and large corporation. Pushpa Bhargava, a scientist associated with the GEAC and one of the first biotechnologists in the country, stated in a public interview that one of the committee’s reports on the biosafety of Bt brinjal was filled with basic errors and was passed hastily without due peer review among scientists. He also alleged that the paper might have been pre-written and fed to the GEAC by corporate interests.

Devinder Sharma, a food and trade policy analyst, believes that one of the main reasons for wanting developing GM crops is an impending food shortage, expected to come to a head in 2050.  Agricultural production will have to be increased by 60 per cent if the food needs of the world's population in 2050 are to be fulfilled, suggested a report by the Food and Agricultural Organisation.

“The world has seven billion people,” Sharma said. “By 2050, the population will be nine billion." However, Sharma said that global agricultural production in 2013 was good enough to feed 14 billion people. "So we are already producing food enough food for that number," he contended. "Our focus should be to minimise or stop wastage rather than producing more.”

Choudhary disagrees. He says that all possible solutions must be tested now, so that India is not caught wanting when the time comes to actually deliver all this food. “We cannot be complacent about our stocks,” he said. “In 2008, we were forced to import wheat because of a drought. We cannot let that happen again. For that, testing must continue.”

Ajay Parida, executive director at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, said that commercial research and lab testing should be delinked. "We need to have in-house and field conditions testing before going ahead,” he said.