A technical body has said that genetically-modified (GM) mustard is “safe for human and animal health” and did not threaten biodiversity. The Environment Ministry on Monday made public the body’s report on its website and invited comments until the 5th of October.
Now, the Environment Ministry will take a “final call” on whether GM mustard should be declared safe for commercial cultivation. The Hindu had reported on this committee’s favourable verdict on the August 26. Sources told The Hindu that such a technical clearance would be a gateway to not only GM mustard — the first such food crop in Indian fields — but to a host of several genetically-modified food crops being developed by public as well as private-research bodies. These include genetically-modified rice, brinjal, wheat, tomato among others and are at various stages of the approval process.
For Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11) the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) had consulted with plant biologists, ecologists and environmentalists before tasking a sub-committee with compiling all evidence and addressing key questions. In 2010, the GEAC had cleared Bt brinjal but it’s decision was over-ruled by the then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh.
DMH-11 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 also used in India. The technology used in DMH-11 allows local crop developers to easily develop different varieties of hybrid mustard, like in say GM cotton, and confer traits like pest resistance and potentially improving yield.
The 133-page report is an abridged version of the full biosafety dossier that generally accompanies applications by crop developers to the GEAC. The GEAC subcommittee hasn’t conducted tests over and above those already done as part of the biosafety-testing process that GM crops currently undergo.
However its mandate was to check if the genes used in DMH-11 produced unexpected changes, or made the plant more susceptible to weeds than conventional strains of mustard. “In summary it was observed that natural occurrence of all the major pests and disease of mustard were similar in GE hybrid DMH-11 as well as non genetically engineered conventional local check variety...however as a precautionary approach and sustainable use of this technology...an oversight post-release monitoring is suggested,” the report added.
The report also attested that using foreign genes had its intended effect of developing hybrid mustard. “The efficacy evaluation has proven the presence of hybrid vigour in the hybrid...proving proof of concept of the technology,” the report noted.
The committee’s recommendations are likely to be scrutinised by environmental activists, several of whom have said that the GM mustard in question, is a threat to farmer livelihoods, ecology and consumer health. The Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, a collective of organisations opposed to GM foods led a march in Delhi last week, requesting the Aam Aadmi Party leadership in Delhi to disallow GM mustard trials or any commercialisation.
Environment minister Anil Madhav, in a press statement on August 26, 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 in their fields.
The imperative to make public, bio-safety data around DMH-11 follows a reprimand by the Central Information Commissioner earlier last month to the environment ministry for not making bio-safety data around genetically-modified organisms and mustard public.