New Delhi: Setting the stage for the approval of the contentious genetically modified (GM) mustard, the environment ministry on Monday placed in the public domain a safety assessment report prepared by a subcommittee under the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC).
According to the report, GM mustard technology has been found to be “safe for food/feed and environment" following an assessment of detailed bio-safety data submitted by the technology developer, Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants, Delhi University.
However, GEAC will take a final decision after it receives comments from the general public and stakeholders on the safety assessment report. The comments must reach GEAC by 5 October. While the safety assessment report can be accessed online, the full bio-safety dossier can only be seen in person by prior appointment.
The GEAC is the environment ministry’s regulator for approving transgenic products.
The decision by the environment ministry to place the safety assessment report in the public domain follows an order from the Central Information Commission last month which rebuked the ministry for not releasing the data, saying “any attempt to postpone or delay the disclosure will block public discussion" on GM mustard.
If cleared for release by the environment ministry, GM mustard, or DMH-11, developed by Delhi University will be the first GM food crop to be commercially cultivated in India. So far, only GM cotton is cultivated in the country.
According to the subcommittee’s report, following toxicity and allergenicity studies, DMH-11 “does not raise any public health or safety concerns for human beings and animals".
“The introduced proteins... are expressed at negligible to non-detectable levels in the edible parts and have been derived from commonly occurring non-pathogenic bacteria," the report said, adding that “none of these proteins has been shown to be toxic or allergenic through bioinformatics and acute toxicity studies in experimental animals."
“Its good that the GEAC has put out the report inviting public comments. We have tried to answer all questions to the best of our abilities and I hope the government will approve the technology," said Deepak Pental, the lead scientist who developed the technology.
Pental added that it will be India’s loss if more time is spent in regulatory approvals as the technology, which promises higher productivity and was developed with public funding, has been awaiting approval for more than seven years already.
Organizations opposed to GM technology, like the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), are resisting the commercialization of GM mustard, citing safety concerns. SJM is an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Advocates of GM mustard say it will give a 30% higher yield, but opponents dismiss the claim, saying there is no scientific basis for it.
“GEAC has put out a sanitized document inviting public comments that precludes any independent feedback or scientific scrutiny," said Kavitha Kuruganti, an activist with the Coalition for a GM-Free India, an alliance of 400 non-governmental groups resisting the commercialization of GM mustard.
She added that the test protocols were decided by the technology developers themselves based on general guidelines from GEAC.
“Now GEAC is seeking comments in a prescribed format without any space for general comments on the need for the technology," Kuruganti said.