India debates GM oil mustard launch

NEW DELHI, India — India’s chief scientific adviser has urged prime minister Narendra Modi to decide the fate of the country’s first genetically modified food crop, mustard, and a recent meeting suggests authorities may support commercialization.

While the path to a commercial launch is fraught with political opposition, allowing GM crops is critical to Modi’s goal of attaining self sufficiency in edible oils. India spends more than $10 billion annually on vegetable oil imports and GM mustard, with yields 38 percent higher than normal varieties, will give Modi a chance to slash this bill.

The prime minister has already shown he is keen to push for technology in farming, which sustains more than two-thirds of India’s population, by reversing an effective ban on field trials of GM food crops soon after taking office in 2014. Earlier, as the chief minister of Gujarat state, he had backed the widespread adoption of GM cotton by farmers.

GM mustard is next on the country’s radar. Results from safety tests conducted on the hybrid oilseed crop over the past decade were submitted to the government in September.

“I am hoping that its commercial launch happens,” Deepak Pental, the main scientist behind the GM oilseed crop, told Reuters. “And the very fact that the ministry called a meeting (on Jan. 4) suggests they are serious. Also, if India’s top scientist is writing to the PM, then it surely is significant.”

In a letter sent to Modi and seen by Reuters, principal scientific adviser R. Chidambaram said GM food crops were widely prevalent globally and their use would rise only as changing weather patterns hit farm output. India already consumes oil derived from GM canola grown in Canada.

ADVERTISMENT

“India, in my opinion, should not hesitate to be the first introducer of new advanced technology, after convincing itself, of course, about its value to the users and the nation, its economic viability, its safety and environment friendliness,” Chidambaram wrote in the letter sent in October.

“GM food crops fall into this category.”

India’s environment and forest ministry, which is responsible for assessing GM crop applications, said the 3,100-page mustard safety report was being evaluated, and that commercialization would be preceded by a careful analysis of risks and benefits.

India’s GM mustard makes use of three genes already incorporated in canola hybrids in Canada, the United States and Australia, and extensive biosafety tests have revealed no cause for concern, Pental said.

Also, oil derived from its seeds does not contain any of the proteins linked to the three genes used, he added.

ADVERTISMENT

While things are moving in the right direction, Pental acknowledged that overcoming opposition would be difficult.

Grassroots groups associated with Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have opposed GM crops, fearing the reliance on expensive seeds patented by multinationals like Monsanto. Pental, however, said the mustard project was state-funded so seed prices would be reasonable.

Monsanto launched B.t. cotton in India in 2002, selling seeds directly and licensing local producers. The GM cotton, which produces its own insecticide, has helped India become a leading producer and exporter of the fibre. Monsanto is also developing GM corn varieties.

Prabhakar Kelkar, the national general secretary of the farmers’ body affiliated to BJP’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, said the government should not go ahead until every seed variety was found to be foolproof.

“We’ll make people aware of the ill effects, especially after pest attacks devastated GM cotton crops recently,” said Kelkar. “But if the government approves, then what can we do?”

ADVERTISMENT

  • Denise

    Bt cotton has been an Indian nightmare for farmers. 290 thousand farmers have committed suicide over the last 20 years when they couldn’t pay their bills for producing this GM crop.

    • Jennifer Jacula

      That is incorrect. Indian farmers were committing suicide before the introduction of GM crops. The rate actually decreased after GM crops were introduced.

      • ed

        … As in all areas where GM crops have been introduced, costs escalated and net incomes dive for the peg. Total farm debts increased significantly. Suicide rates are up as well on all the farms around the globe because of these negative factors associated with GM technologies. Suicides are substantially up in nations like India where the shame of losing the multi-generational farm is the operators cross to bear. He or she will ingest Roundup, treated GMO seed or some other type of poison as a “fall on your sword” self sacrifice offering to the remaining family members in the admission and remorse for the bad decisions and poor management that have brought on the families new found bad fortunes. It is the least they can do to save face in these cultures. You don’t have to fully understand it to acknowledge it. It is another shining example of Monsanto’s addiction to money and complete lack of sensitivity. That would not be surprising to many however.