New Delhi: The government is considering a proposal that says genetically modified (GM) crops, apart from passing several other field trials, also have to prove that they are nutritionally superior to their “natural" counterparts before they can be cultivated in any scale and, consequently, sold commercially.

The Supreme Court may have lifted an eight-month ban on field trials of generically modified or GM food crops (albeit with some riders) in May, but if the government decides to go ahead with this proposal, it will make it tougher for any GM crop to make the grade. Companies and research bodies developing GM eggplant, for instance, must, in addition to passing toxicity and allerginicity tests, show that this is nutritionally superior to ordinary eggplant. GM crops are usually cultivated because they promise high yields, good-looking vegetables and fruits, and are pest-resistant.

“A GM tomato can’t just be big and juicy, but will have to prove that it’s better than what you get now," said Vasantha Muthuswamy, senior deputy director general, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), who helped draft the guidelines.

A GM tomato will have to be nutritionally superior to the natural variety under the proposal

When genetically modified food crops were first allowed in the US a decade ago, some environmental groups alleged that they were of little nutritional value.

“We have taken all those matters into consideration," Muthuswamy added.

Currently called the Draft Notification of Nutrition Guidelines for Genetically Modified Foods, the document was prepared by ICMR at the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad.

Though referred to as guidelines, companies would have to strictly adhere to them.

“These guidelines have been submitted to the genetic engineering approval committee (or GEAC, the nodal government body that has the final say on GM crops), and once they clear it, it will be a mandatory for companies to follow them," Muthuswamy said.

Most of the guidelines are detailed chemical tests, and list the data to be collected and the format in which test studies have to be submitted.

Richard Goodman, professor of food science, at the University of Nebraska and responsible for specifying similar guidelines for GM crops in the US said: “These procedures are vital and while it’s not too difficult to chemically prove nutritional superiority, you need a highly qualified, dedicated set of technical experts to evaluate such test results. I hope the Indian government has thought of that aspect too."

While the department of biotechnology (DBT), one of the government agencies involved with GM foods, has always said it’s short on technical staff, Muthuswamy said that specialized training for analysing nutritional guidelines was being given to DBT officials.

“We have tied up with a Canadian company, AGBIOS, to provide training to our staff for this work. As of now, 60 scientists have specialized training and we hope to properly equipped within a year," she added.

Genetically modified eggplant is now at the penultimate stage of test trials and, if all clearances are given by GEAC, is expected to be commercially available in two years.