Activists flag lapses in approval for genetically modified mustard

Women carry fodder for their cattle through a mustard field on the outskirts of Srinagar. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail/File Photo

New Delhi: Indian authorities rushed approvals for a locally developed genetically modified (GM) mustard variety by violating environmental regulations, said a group of activists opposed to GM crops on Friday. In October, India granted environmental clearance for indigenously developed GM mustard seeds, paving the way for the commercial use of its first GM food crop.

During its evaluation and approval for GM mustard, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) - a regulator under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change - violated biosafety regulations, said the Coalition of GM-free India. GEAC's decision was riddled with serious regulatory lapses, the coalition said in a report released on Friday.

New Delhi approved GM mustard, part of the rapeseed family, to help cut the country's expensive cooking oil imports. The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent outside of business hours. Mustard has the highest oil content among India's nine main oilseeds, including soybeans and peanuts, but crop yields have stagnated for years. India, the world's biggest edible oil importer, meets more than 70% of its cooking oil demand through imports.

In the fiscal year to March 31, 2022, New Delhi spent a record $18.99 billion to import vegetable oils, prompting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to voice concerns about India's rising vegetable oil import bill. Scientist and former vice-chancellor of Delhi University Deepak Pental developed the lab-altered mustard seeds with his team for more than a decade.

India's top agricultural scientists have said the GEAC has approved GM mustard seeds after a lengthy, foolproof trial and the new variety is safe for the environment and human health.

In 2017, Pental's team came close to getting government approval to grow GM mustard seeds commercially, following years of field trials and the analysis of crop data. But resistance from activists opposing the use of transgenic technology in farming prompted India to sit on the fence. Since first allowing GM cotton in 2002, India has not approved any transgenic crop.

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