New Delhi: India’s regulator for transgenic products approved the commercial release of genetically modified (GM) mustard on Thursday, paving the way for a new technology for farmers.

If approved by the environment ministry, GM mustard will be the first food crop to be allowed in India after Bt cotton was commercially released 15 years ago.

However, a commercial release will not be easy—the regulator had approved Bt Brinjal in 2010 but then environment minister Jairam Ramesh refused to give a go ahead. Whether the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi will take the plunge despite a stiff opposition from both the right (notably the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, an affiliate of the ruling government’s ideological parent Rashtriya Sawamsevak Sangh) and the left (civil society groups and anti-GM activists) remains to be seen.

But what raises the chances of allowing GM mustard is the history that Modi as chief minister of the Gujarat state in 2001 did not cede to the Centre’s directive to burn down Bt cotton crops which farmers grew illegally even before it was approved for commercial release.

Another favourable point for GM mustard is that it is developed by a public research institute (Delhi University’s Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Plant Crops), a counter to the opposition’s fear of monopolistic practices and takeover of seed businesses by large corporations.

For the proponents of GM technology, however, there are stronger reasons to approve a new mustard variety that promises higher yields. India is heavily dependent on import of edible oils (over 60% of India’s domestic requirement is imported) and a large portion is already coming from Argentina and Brazil which allows GM technology (in soybean and canola).

But can India repeat the Bt cotton experience (turning a large exporter from being a net importer following rapid adoption of GM technology by farmers) with oilseeds?

“That is unlikely to happen fast as our import volumes are very high," said Ashok Gulati, agriculture chair professor at Delhi-based Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations.

“But the government needs to act boldly... approving GM mustard will open up possibilities for research and adoption of new technologies in future. When Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee approved Bt cotton in 2002, he paved the way for science to transform agriculture. We need to do it again as farmers are always open to new technology," Gulati added.

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