New Delhi: The environment ministry has received several requests from companies seeking permission to import genetically modified (GM) feed for animals, even though the debate on whether or not to allow commercialization of GM food crops is far from settled in India.

However, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the central government’s regulator for giving clearances for field trials of GM crops and import/export of GM seeds, has deferred a decision on these requests in the absence of an expert view on the matter.

According to the minutes of the GEAC’s December 2015 meeting accessed by Mint, four such proposals were received by the committee.

For instance, Suguna Foods sought permission from the GEAC for “import of GM Soybean meal from China, Brazil, Argentina, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, USA for producing of poultry and animal feed".

“The purpose of import is as an ingredient in the animal feed for self usage for producing poultry and animal feeds. The Member Secretary, GEAC informed that comments of the experts on the proposal are still awaited," said the minutes.

Another such proposal was from Godrej Agrovet Ltd, which sought “permission for import of processed food—Dried Distillers Grains with Soluble (DDGS)—corn from USA and market in India".

Most ethanol plants in the US are dry-grind facilities that use starch from corn to produce ethanol. The remainder of the corn kernel is used to produce a variety of wet and dry distillers grains co-products including DDGS, which is considered an excellent low-cost alternative feed ingredient.

But the GEAC was not convinced.

“Besides the comments from experts, comments of department of animal husbandry and FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) may be obtained regarding the export/import of GM feed. Comments from other experts may be followed-up. Decision on the proposal was deferred," the GM regulator noted.

Environmentalists, too, are against allowing GM food as animal feed.

“This is an issue of grave concern for us. Animals are part of our food chain and if GM feed is allowed in poultry industry, it could have adverse results. GM cotton seed that goes to animal feed has already started showing negative consequences in our cattle (like low pregnancy rates)," said Rajinder Chaudhary of the Coalition for GM-Free India, an organization of activists against GM crops.

Any ill-effects caused by GM cotton seed in animal feed are yet to be verified.

“The real question is whether there is really a need for GM products. If only there is a real need, then only GM food products should be explored," said Chaudhary, who is a retired professor of economics.

The issue of field trials of GM crops and their commercialization, especially food crops like brinjal and mustard, has been a contentious one in India.

Recently, controversy erupted when the GEAC was hearing an application for commercialization of GM mustard.

Mint reported on 6 February that after a lot of opposition from environmentalists, environment minister Prakash Javadekar assured that the government would not impose GM mustard on consumers and that a final decision will be taken only after due deliberation.

Since coming to power in May 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government has been trying unsuccessfully to build consensus around the issue.

In its 2014 election manifesto, the BJP had said that genetically modified crops will not be allowed without proper scientific investigation.

But organizations opposing GM crops include the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, affiliated to the ideological parent of the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

The strong opposition to GM crops could hamper the government’s push for investment and growth in biotechnology.