Battle over commercialization of GM mustard may be entering final stages

The environment ministry’s panel has called a meeting on 18 July to hear the concerns of civil society members on genetically modified mustard


The environment ministry’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) has called for a special meeting on Monday. Photo: AFP
The environment ministry’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) has called for a special meeting on Monday. Photo: AFP

New Delhi: After years of acrimony between environmental campaigners and industry, the battle over whether to allow commercialization of genetically modified (GM) mustard crops in India now seems to be entering its final stages.

The environment ministry’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the regulator for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), has called for a special meeting on Monday to hear the concerns of the civil society members who have been protesting against it.

The ministry was severely criticized last month for not giving enough time to environmentalist and consumer union members to present their case against GM mustard’s commercialization.

In a meeting on 20 June, GEAC, which is a part of the environment ministry, had considered a proposal for permitting commercialization of transgenic mustard hybrid DMH-11, developed by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation and Crop Plants at Delhi University.

But a team of experts representing organizations from across India who have been protesting against GM mustard’s commercial release, was not given enough time to voice their concerns. As a result, they walked out of the meeting and shot off an angry letter to the ministry, accusing GEAC of being opaque, unscientific and non-participatory.

They also accused the government of supporting the interests of seed companies and chemical makers at the expense of farmers and other citizens.

The special meeting called by GEAC to hear their views is a result of this protest.

“There are eight of us going for the meeting on 18 July. We are taking detailed evidence to present to GEAC that why this GM mustard application should not have been entertained at all till this stage and should be immediately stopped from any further action,” said Kavitha Kuruganti of the coalition for a GM-Free India, an alliance of 400 non-government groups.

Kuruganti also hoped that with his background as an environmentalist, the new environment minister Anil Madhav Dave will exercise caution on the issue.

Besides Kuruganti, the seven others attending next week’s special meeting comprise two agricultural scientists, two ecologists, two farmers’ union leaders and a consumer union representative.

According to the minutes of GEAC’s meeting on 20 June, reviewed by Mint, GEAC has given a month’s time to a sub-committee to look into the safety issues around GM mustard and give its “final recommendations”.

“It’s a very sensitive issue. The ministry will take full time and listen to all sides before taking a final call. But one cannot stop science. Scientists of Delhi University, too, are working on GM mustard for over a decade now. However, if there are genuine safety concerns about genetically modified crops, their commercialization won’t be allowed,” said a senior official of the environment ministry who did not want to be identified.

GEAC largely works in a secretive manner, prompting the Central Information Commission to pull up the environment ministry in April for its lack of transparency on trials of GM crops and to direct the ministry to release all information, including bio-safety data, related to the field trials of the GM mustard crop before 30 April.

The environment ministry is now seeking an extension of 90 days to make the information public.

The issue of field trials of GM crops and their commercialization, especially food crops such as brinjal and mustard, has been a contentious one in India. If GEAC clears GM mustard, it will become India’s first GM food crop to be grown. Currently, only GM cotton is allowed in India.

During the tenure of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, then environment minister Jairam Ramesh placed a moratorium on commercialization of Bt Brinjal after huge pressure from civil society activists. The government apparently is of the view that GM technology is necessary for India’s food security and to usher in a second Green Revolution in the country.

However, organizations opposed to GM crops include the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), which is affiliated to the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Advocates of genetically modified mustard say it gives 30% higher yields but opponents dismiss the claim, saying there is no scientific basis for it.

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