Since the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government put a moratorium on commercial cropping of Monsanto’s Bt Brinjal in 2010, the Centre has received the first- ever proposal for clearance in five years to let farmers grow a transgenic food crop – a genetically modified hybrid variety of the mustard plant. The decision on the proposal would have to be taken by the environment ministry on behalf of the Union government.
This would not be the first time that a proposal for commercial cultivation of GM Mustard comes up before the government. In 2002, the then Union government had rejected proposal for commercial planting of private sector seed manufacturer’s, Bayer’s transgenic mustard plant. The debate, science and regulations on GM food crops has considerably evolved since then.
Deepak Pental, developer of the GM mustard seed at Delhi University, said that he had sent the proposal to the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) in mid-September. The GEAC is the statutory authority that appraises proposals for field trials and commercial release of GM crops but its views are not binding on the government. The final call on such clearances lies with the Union environment, forests and climate change minister.
A senior official in the environment ministry said a date for the meeting of the GEAC had not been set as yet and was not likely in the coming week. A member of the GEAC, speaking to Business Standard on the condition of anonymity, said a meeting of the committee was likely after November 8.
The planting season for mustard ends in the third week of November. Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana account for nearly 70% of India’s production of the crop.
The National Democratic Alliance has permitted field trials of GM crops in the past, despite opposition from Swadeshi Jagran Manch, an RSS-affiliate. Though decision-making on the issue has been put behind a veil of opaqueness. The GEAC took a decision last year to not disclose the agenda of its meetings or other information on the proposals it reviews pro-actively and provide it only in response to specific queries under the RTI Act.
In the recent past, the environment ministry also refused to disclose data from biosafety tests of the transgenic mustard asked under the RTI Act stating that the issue (regarding GM mustard) was “under process”. The applicant’s appeal against the ministry’s decision to not share data is now pending before the Central Information Commissioner.
In the past, when appraising the Bt Brinjal for commercial release the GEAC, under the UPA government, had proactively put out selective information shared by the promoters and sought public comments on it. Then, on orders of the Supreme Court, it was also forced to put out all biosafety data from the trials on the specific transgenic plant. Subsequently, the GEAC recommended the commercial cropping of the transgenic Brinjal plant but the decision was over-ruled by the then environment minister
Pental said it was up to the government to decide if it wanted to disclose the biosafety data in public domain or not.
Pental claimed his transgenic mustard hybrid variety provided a 30 per cent higher yield than other varieties. He also claimed the costs for the hybrid seed would be considerably lower. Critics of the GM Mustard hybrid say the comparison was made against non-hybrid seeds and other non-transgenic hybrids also provide similarly higher productivity. Organisations such as the Coalition for a GM-Free India, warn of contamination by transgenic mustard seeds, citing cases from the US and other countries and say the particular hybrid producing technology would aid seed manufacturers more than the farmers.
Pental claimed groups, individuals and NGOs opposing the technology do so on ideological grounds. He said the safety of GM Mustard had been proven by the continued cultivation, sale and export of Canola oil in Canada since 1995 and in the US since 2002, which is based on similar transgenic technology. He said three to four years had been wasted in conducting the bio-safety studies in India with the process having been complicated by Jairam Ramesh as environment minister for the UPA government.
This article was originally published on Business Standard.