GM mustard moves closer to approval

However, multiple clearances are still required

Updated - October 01, 2016 10:14 pm IST

Published - August 26, 2016 12:56 am IST - NEW DELHI:

Activists protesting against GM mustard outside the Environment Ministry in Delhi. FILE PHOTO: R.V. MOORTHY

Activists protesting against GM mustard outside the Environment Ministry in Delhi. FILE PHOTO: R.V. MOORTHY

Genetically-modified (GM) mustard may have moved closer to being cleared for commercial cultivation in India after a key committee, tasked with assessing all the available evidence so far on the plant’s suitability for Indian soil and risks posed to health and ecology, is learnt to have given a favourable assessment on the tests done so far on GM mustard. However there are multiple approvals still required for any likely clearance.

Multiple sources told The Hindu that a document — called a safety document — detailing the sub-committee’s findings as well as the data it had perused in assessing DMH-11, the genetically modified (GM) mustard hybrid developed by researchers at the Delhi University, would be made available online for public comments next week.

The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) is an Environment Ministry body whose clearance is mandatory for testing GM crops in farmer fields. For DMH-11 it had consulted with plant biologists, ecologists and environmentalists before tasking a sub-committee with compiling all evidence — and addressing key questions — on DMH-11. Earlier too in 2010, the GEAC had cleared Bt brinjal but it’s decision over-ruled by the then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh.

“The GEAC has approved the subcommittee’s report and is now with the Minister [Anil Madhav],” a key official told The Hindu , “GM mustard being a sensitive issue, it’s on his desk…finger’s crossed. We cannot put curbs on research.”

Mr. Madhav, in a press statement, emphasised that “no final decision has been taken as yet on the issue” and that in a meeting held on August 11, 2016, it has “appraised” the “Safety” Document prepared by the Sub-Committee that would be put up on the website of GEAC inviting comments from the public. Moreover, a GEAC approval doesn’t mean the States — who have the final says on agriculture seeds — are compelled to clear it their fields.

The imperative to make public bio-safety data around DMH-11 follows a reprimand by the Central Information Commissioner earlier this month to the government for not making bio-safety data around genetically-modified organisms and mustard public.

The mustard in question has been developed by a team of scientists at Delhi University led by former vice-chancellor Deepak Pental under a government-funded project. In essence, it uses a system of genes from soil bacterium that makes mustard — generally a self pollinating plant — better suited to hybridisation than current methods. A similar sequence of genes has been used in imported canola oil. This means local crop developers can more easily develop different varieties of hybrid mustard, like in say GM cotton, and confer traits like pest resistance and potentially improving yield.

Yield no better: Activists

Activists have however maintained that publicly-available data on DMH-11 shows that its yield is no better than existing varieties. Moreover the government has consistently stone-walled attempts, according to Kavitha Kurugnati of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, to obtain complete data on the tests done on DMH-11 in multiple States over the years.

Proponents of the technology said that India’s dependence on edible oil imports made it necessary to harness GM-mustard. “Annually, India spends about $12 billion on imported edible oil. The edible oil deficit will continue to widen with the increase in population and per capita income. To address this challenge, India needs to increase productivity of oilseed crops. DMH-11 is one of the promising technologies to improve mustard yield in India, which is almost stagnant since the last two decades,” said a statement by the South Asia Biotechnology Centre.

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