Many questions unanswered on GM mustard: activists

16 Sep 2016


Activists opposing genetically-modified crops claimed on Thursday that a Union government panel had initially raised "serious questions" about GM-mustard under appraisal for cultivation, but labelled it as safe for human and animal consumption without receiving adequate answers.

The Coalition for a GM-Free India has claimed that documents made public by the Union environment ministry suggest that a subcommittee constituted by the ministry's regulatory panel on GM products had raised serious questions, but turned away meekly without any scientific or satisfactory answers.

The environment ministry had earlier this month invited public comments on the subcommittee's observations that the GM mustard developed by plant biologists at the University of Delhi is safe for human and animal consumption and does not raise public health or safety concerns.

The ministry's Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the regulatory body to examine applications for release of GM products, had set up the eight-member subcommittee to examine the safety and performance dossiers of the GM mustard.

"The subcommittee made some hard observations and even hinted at additional studies required. However, there is no evidence in its report that all such questions have been answered, observations responded to, and new analysis presented," the Coalition for GM-Free India said in a statement.

The University of Delhi scientists have claimed that laboratory studies and field trials suggest that their GM mustard promises 25 per cent to 30 per cent higher yields than standard cultivated mustard varieties and will thus help reduce India's edible oil imports.

The Coalition said its analysis of the minutes of GEAC meetings and the subcommittee's assessment of food and environmental safety report does not explain how the subcommittee gave a clean chit to the GM mustard after raising various concerns, including issues relating to possible toxicity and impact on soil bacteria.

"The procedures through which this subcommittee declared the GM mustard as safe have been opaque and unexplained," said Kavitha Kuruganti, a member of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, a part of the Coalition for GM-free India. "The subcommittee needs to explain its observations after raising questions."

Professor K Veluthambi, professor of plant biotechnology at the Madurai Kamaraj University, Madurai, who chaired the subcommittee, said the GEAC will take into account all such comments and concerns and respond appropriately. He declined to respond to queries about the specific questions the subcommittee had raised.

The Union environment ministry has set 5 October as the deadline for public responses to the subcommittee's proposal for the authorisation of the release of GM mustard for cultivation. "The process of appraisal is still under way, the GEAC will examine these issues and will respond," Veluthambi told The Telegraph.

The mustard from the University of Delhi is the second edible GM crop that Indian regulators are assessing for possible commercial cultivation after a similar exercise with GM brinjal in 2009-2010.

The environment ministry under former Union minister Jairam Ramesh had imposed a moratorium on GM brinjal after activists and some scientists questioned claims that the plant had adequately cleared all required environmental and biosafety assessment studies. The moratorium has disappointed sections of the biotechnology industry that believes India must invest in GM crops to improve yields and feed its population.

India, which allowed the cultivation of GM cotton in 2002, has seen dramatic yield increases in cotton over the past decade. Crop biotechnology scientists say GM crops will be essential to boost yields.


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