It is time for the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) to approve Genetically Modified (GM) mustard. It has been almost six years since a moratorium was clamped on the commercial release of Bt brinjal without any real scientific basis. For long, the ministry of environment has buckled under public pressure brought by the anti-GM lobby, and has shown no courage to take a decision based on scientific data. Now, in the case of GM mustard the story seems to be playing out again. Already, the anti-GM lobby led by Vandana Shiva has submitted a petition via Change.org signed by thousands people to force GEAC not to approve GM mustard, ostensibly because of safety reasons and inappropriateness of the technology itself to Indian agriculture. The facts are far from the ground realities.

GM mustard has been engineered using a system of genes called Barnase/Barstar to create nuclear male sterile plants needed to create hybrids. The nuclear sterility gene has been introduced in such a way that it follows the Mendelian laws of inheritance, assuring the stability of the gene construct. Such GM canola, a cousin of canola, has been under cultivation in the US, Canada and Australia for over a decade without any report of harm to the environment or human health. GM mustard has undergone rigorous testing for all biosafety characters and for environmental impact. The results show that it does not impact the environment any differently than conventional hybrid counterparts. This has been the conclusion of leading regulatory agencies around the world.

The canola oil extracted out of GM canola does not contain any detectable level of DNA, RNA, or protein from the engineered genes, and as such, does not present human health issues to the consumers. The regulatory dossier of GM mustard developed by the public sector laboratory belonging to the Delhi University by a leading plant biotechnologist of the country by the former vice-chancellor Deepak Pental has presented irrefutable biosafety data. The irony is that the anti-GM lobby has long protested that GM seeds that are developed by multinational agri-biotech giants are not for countries like India, but when Bt brinjal varieties and GM mustard hybrids are developed by India’ public sector institutions, they oppose them even more. Ex-minister Jairam Ramesh had argued that he wanted India’s public sector to become leaders in GM crops in the country and did not want MNC domination.

GEAC must go by scientific data and now approve GM mustard, and environment minister Prakash Javdekar must sign off on it without any hesitation. He must take back the decision-making function that has been hijacked by the anti-GM lobby. He should also stand firm against his own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) affiliates like the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) and Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) that are using unscientific reasons like the rest of the anti-GM lobby to stall GM technology.

Top-flight geneticists, a missile scientist, plant breeders from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, heads of the largest seed and biotech companies, activists, farmers’ representatives and officials of Niti Aayog took part in a day-long discussions on GM crops at the National Chemical Laboratories, Pune in September.

Playing the leading role was Ashok Chowgule, an executive director of Chowgule & Company, a large Goa-based industrial group with interests in iron ore, shipbuilding, industrial explosives among others.

Chowgule is passionate about GM technology as “the way forward" for agriculture. Chowgule believes “the worldwide opponents of the technology are misusing BKS and SJM for their agenda".

In another petition, a worldwide group of leading scientists has urged Javdekar to approve the GM mustard. And recently, scientists from defence organizations discussed agro-animal technologies in Ladakh, engineering plants and food technology for armed forces on the second day of a three-day national seminar at Chowdhary Charan Singh Univeristy, organized by the botany department on ‘Challenges in Plant Science’. The scientists said genetically engineered crops are need of the times, and have no harmful effects on the atmosphere or as human health.

Indian agriculture badly needs new technology infusion to improve its performance. Indian farmers, if they are to become globally competitive, need the benefits of modern science and technology, and it high time that the ministry of environment approved GM crops without further vacillation. There is not a shred of credible scientific evidence to show that GM crops are unsafe and that they have any harmful effect on environment from anywhere in the world. GM mustard will revolutionize the oil-crop’s productivity, and will greatly contribute to alleviating cooking oil shortages in the country.

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