Is the Narendra Modi government having a rethink on its apparent plan to let a genetically modified (GM) food in India for the first time and make history?
A day after the environment ministry put out a detailed note (FAQs) on its website that clearly indicated that it was favourably inclined to give the nod to the high-yielding, insect-resistant genetically engineered mustard hybrid DMH-11, it withdrew the same without any credible explanation.
The transgenic oilseed was developed by a group of Delhi University scientists who were assisted by state funding.
Although sources from the ministry said a new note would be released soon with minor corrections, most observers were left wondering if the haphazard move wasn’t prompted by top echelons of the government. Meanwhile, BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, incidentally the country’s largest mustard producers, reiterated their opposition to GM foods.
“We have been consistently opposing field trials of GM crops because of their possible adverse impact on human health over the long term,” Rajesh Rajora, principal secretary-agriculture, Madhya Pradesh, told FE. Taking cue from Madhya Pradesh, the Rajasthan government had earlier disallowed field trials of DMH-11.
The environment ministry’s technical wing, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee had, on Thursday recommended release to the environment of the GM mustard variety. The ministry stated the following day via the FAQ note that the genetically engineered mustard hybrid — its seed, leaves and oil — are as safe for human and animal consumption and as nutritious as the mustard varieties conventionally grown in the country. “In compositional analysis, the GE mustard is found to be substantially equivalent to commercially cultivated mustard varieties Varuna and RL 1359,” the ministry said.
“The transgenes would not be transferred to humans or animals through consumption of GE mustard,” the ministry said in the note it withdrew abruptly.
If the GM mustard variety gets nod from environment minister Anil Madhav Dave, it would be the first GM food crop to be approved in India for commercial cultivation and consumption.
While Bt cotton has been cultivated in the country since 2002, Bt brinjal, the first GM food crop approved by the GEAC, never hit the fields as an indefinite moratorium was imposed on its commercial release in early 2010 by then environment minister Jairam Ramesh.
The environment ministry’s note on GM mustard DMH-11 was categorical in disproving the concerns of anti-GM NGOs and others on issues such as its impact on quality of nectar, honey bees, animal feed, irrigation and fertilizer use.
However, it refrained from a blanket endorsement of the GM foods, by advocating a case-by-case regulatory approach. “Different GM organisms include different genes inserted in different ways. This means that individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods,” the ministry said. But it added that the GM foods currently available in the global markets “are not likely to present risks to human health.”
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Although GEAC has approved field trials of several GM crops, there has not been much headway because of lack of no-objection certification by the states. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is also hearing a petition on commercial release of GM crops and what view the court takes will have a bearing on the government’s policy.
According to industry body Association of Biotech Led Enterprises-Agriculture Group, DMH-11, the development which was government-funded, has the potential to increase the yield by more than 25%, and thereby reduce the country’s edible oil import bill. India’s rapeseed-mustard seed production stood at 7.9 million tonnes in the 2016-17 crop year (July-June).