Is GM Mustard a history in the making or it has an obituary waiting?

Would the genetically modified mustard really be India's first edible GM crop, thereby creating a turning point in India's scientific history? This is one such hot question that every relevant stakeholder is asking today!

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New Delhi: Finally, the genetically modified mustard has again found favor with the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), India’s top regulator for GM crops that has recommended its commercial use in a latest submission made to the environment ministry.

In a meeting held on 11th May, the GEAC approved the commercial use of GM mustard after reviewing the report of a sub-committee constituted to look at the safety angle. However, it has also put a number of conditions to the ministry while recommending its commercial use. If approved, the GM mustard would be the first genetically modified direct food crop to be commercially launched in India. Until now, the Bt Cotton is the only GM crop (non-edible) that has been allowed in India so far.

In a way, it is the repeat of 2009 when in a similar fashion, the Bt brinjal too had been favored for release by GEAC but the then environment minister, Mr Jairam Ramesh who was under tremendous pressure from Greenpeace and leftist activists, decided to hold further consultations and put a moratorium on the crop in 2010. It continues even today.

Until now, the Bt Cotton is the only GM crop (non-edible) that has been allowed in India so far.

Therefore, the big question is whether the current environment chooses a different line of thinking on this or the same story gets repeated all over again. This time, the pressure is more from the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, a group that advocates for indigenous products and considered close to the current government. While the groups’s ideology favoring the Indian products is well known and may be justified also in a nationalistic sense but experts term this opposition misplaced, particularly in this case.

The GM Mustard has been developed by the Delhi-based scientist, Dr Deepak Pental who holds the patent over it. “Entire research has been done in the Delhi University Laboratory, then how does it justify the protest against the product that would benefit farmers besides bring down dependency on cooking oil imports,” mentioned a scientist working in a government institute based in Bengaluru.

The ball, however, lies in the court of Mr Anil Dave, the current environment minister who has to walk a tightrope while deciding the fate of GM mustard. If approved, it will open doors for more than 100 GM crops whose applications are pending before GEAC.

Why are chances higher this time? 

Almost nine months back in August, 2016, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called upon three cabinet ministers and four top bureaucrats to carry out a thorough and speedy assessment of GM mustard. The agriculture minister, Mr Radha Mohan Singh; the environment minister, Mr Anil Dave and the science and technology minister, Dr Harsh Vardhan and the secretaries of these ministries had attended the meeting, as per media reports.

Also, the PM Modi has on various occasions talked about the need for technological interventions in the agriculture and increase productivity. Therefore, if the PMO decides to take it forward, then there is nothing that can stop it for going to commercialization. The chances are stronger this time as compared to Mr Manmohan Singh in whose tenure, Mrs Jayanti Natarajan, the predecessor of Mr Ramesh, had refused to listen to PMO on few key issues. Therefore, all eyes will be on the Prime Minister.

India wants to raise its oilseed output because it spends over Rs 65,000 crore annually on importing cooking oil, an item that stokes inflation. 

Earlier, the environment ministry had received over 700 comments from various stakeholders, including farmers and researchers, on the Assessment of Food and Environmental Safety (AFES) report on GM Mustard, which it had earlier posted on the ministry website.

The Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP), Delhi University South Campus, had submitted an application to the GEAC for the environmental release of (Brassica juncea) hybrid DMH-11 and the use of parental events (varuna bn 3.6 and EH2 mod bs 2.99) for the development of a new generation of hybrids.

The application was submitted in 2015 after which several rounds of meeting were held by the regulator. The sub-committee also convened meetings with experts and also heard the views of various NGOs. There were lot of protest and walkouts.

The concerns raised against GM mustard, are that it would impact allied sectors such as beekeepers, orchards and ayurvedic medicine makers and practitioners.

The environment Secretary and Chairperson of GEAC, Mrs Amita Prasad, was quoted in press saying that it was a unanimous decision with no dissent and all concerns around safety and the need for such a plant were discussed by the most eminent experts. She said it was important to approve GM technology as it is scientifically relevant as well as generate better seeds to address threats from climate change.

So, it is clearly the industry, scientists in overwhelming numbers and bureaucrats on one side versus the activists and environmentalists on the other.

Nonetheless, the nation wants to know (Arnab style) that will we ever get a clear policy over GM crops and the fate of GM Mustard be decided any sooner? or it will go in the deep freezer to sleep in comatose position along with its cousin, the Bt Brinjal! Only time will tell!

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