Assuring the Supreme Court that it will not release genetically modified (GM) mustard without its nod, the government on Monday said that the strengthening of plant breeding programmes with the use of new technologies like genetic engineering is critical for meeting emerging challenges in Indian agriculture and for attaining self-sufficiency.
“GM mustard will significantly reduce the import of canola oil,” the government’s top law officer Mukul Rohatgi said, while accusing the petitioner and farm activist Aruna Rodrigues of “promoting import lobby”.
“India has a major deficit of edible oils. In the fiscal year 2014-15, the country produced 9.8 million tonne (mt) of edible oils and imported 14.35 (mt) to meet the consumption requirements. The import bill was around Rs 65,000 crore,” the government said. The case will be heard next on November 14.
The ministry of environment, forest and climate change, it its 71-page reply to the apex court, said that “mustard being the most important edible oil and seed meal crop of India, is grown in around 6-7 million hectares of land. Seed replacement (farmers buying fresh seeds) rates are around 79% and area under irrigation has increased to 75% of the total area under mustard. Despite all the investments made so far, yields of mustard are stagnating.”
Rohatgi further argued that the regulatory framework at present is designed to ensure that food and environmental safety of each event submitted by the developers is thoroughly assessed through a series of steps and processes before it is considered for environmental release by environment’s ministry’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC).
The technical sub-committee set up by the GEAC had last month concluded that a genetically modified variety of mustard — DMH–11 — developed by scientists of Delhi University, is ‘safe’ for both human and animal health. However, several states, including Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the two top producers of the oilseed, have since come out against the move.
If allowed, GM mustard will be the first genetically-engineered food crop to be cultivated in India; the previous UPA government had put a moratorium on commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal in 2010. Right now, only GM cotton is cultivated in the country.
The ministry further said that the central government is committed to improve farm productivity in oilseed and grain legumes with an explicit goal of making the country self-sufficient in these, besides improving farmers’ incomes.
“Supporting indigenous research through public sector funding is critical for taking technologies to the farmers at a low cost,” the affidavit stated.
Requesting the apex court to dismiss the “highly-motivated” petition filed by advocate Prashant Bhushan, on behalf of Rodrigues, the government said that the petitioners were ideologically against any field application of GE crops and have resorted to misinformation and unscientific interpretations on the issue of genetic diversity.
Rodrigues had filed the plea seeking a stay on the commercial release of GM mustard crop and prohibition of its open field trials. She had also urged the court to prohibit open field trials and commercial release of herbicide-tolerant crops including HT Mustard DMH 11 and its parent lines/variants as recommended by the Technical Expert Committee report.