In a watershed moment India’s regulator for transgenic products, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), has approved commercial production of genetically modified (GM) mustard.
Effectively, India is a step away from allowing GM food crops. The recommendation will now have to approved by Union environment minister Anil Madhav Dave.
GM mustard has been developed by Delhi University-based Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP).
The lobby backing GM crops believe these crops are superior as they are resistant to pests and diseases—implying lower usage of pesticides. Consequently, they can generate better yields and be more environmentally friendly.
So far, only GM cotton, a non-food crop, has been permitted. If indeed the government does give its go-ahead, it would be for the first time that India will be officially adopting a genetically modified food crop. In 2010, the GEAC had approved the commercialization of Bt brinjal; however in the face of strong protests from civil society the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh declined to sign off on the proposal.
But the road ahead is unlikely to be smooth. Not only is there a case pending before the Supreme Court, GM crops have been opposed by civil society and saffron groups such as Swadeshi Jagran Manch, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which is the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Deepak Pental, the lead scientist who developed the technology and former vice-chancellor of Delhi University, declined to comment as he had not received an official communication.
“The application was submitted (to GEAC) in 2015 and we have deliberated on it about eight times. A subcommittee was formed by GEAC in February 2016 which was asked to look into all documents submitted by the applicant. The safety documents were put online and over 700 comments were received. Of those, about 440 were scientific. We gave all our comments to the subcommittee to go through it so that whatever concerns are there are addressed,” said Amita Prasad, GEAC’s chairperson and additional secretary in the environment ministry.
“They (the subcommittee) went through safety documents once again and submitted their report today. GEAC considered their report and appraised the application. We have approved it with certain conditions,” Prasad said.
Last month, in its three-year draft action plan, the government think tank NITI Aayog too had backed GM food crops.
“GEAC has proven yet again that it is unscientific and uncaring with regard to citizens’ health and environment. They have failed in their very mandate and purpose for which they have been created, to protect citizens from risks of GMOs (genetically modified organisms),” said Kavitha Kuruganti, convener of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, a nationwide informal network of more than 400 organizations drawn from 20 states.
Kuruganti and other organizations are at the forefront of protests against GM mustard.
“We hope and urge minister Anil Madhav Dave to be responsible in his decision-making—this GM mustard should be rejected just a Bt brinjal was, seven years ago. At least he should fulfil the mandate of his Ministry, even if the regulators did not. He should uphold BJP’s election manifesto promise that GM foods will not be allowed without full scientific evaluation,” she added.
The commercialization of GM mustard faces other tests too. During the case in the Supreme Court, the central government had promised that it would not approve GM mustard without the court’s nod.
“The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government had promised that GM food crops will not be allowed till all safety concerns are addressed and a consensus is achieved. If GEAC has cleared it we will go to any extent to stop it and would even come on streets,” said Deepak Sharma, the national media head of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch.
The BJP in its 2014 election manifesto had said GM crops would not be allowed without proper scientific investigation. But GM crops are central to the government’s plans for pushing investment and growth in the biotechnology sector. It is also considered critical by the government for boosting farm productivity in India.
Kuruganti further said that the government should not hide behind the Supreme Court.
“To hide behind SC doesn’t make sense for the government. It should be rejected by Anil Madhav Dave. This is fairly straight decision that they should be taking especially when BJP and Narendra Modi had promised to country in 2014 that it would not be brought without long term scientific evaluation,” she added.
Sayantan Bera contributed to this story.