India drags feet on GM mustard approval

NEW DELHI, India (Reuters) — India has frozen requests to commercially release a locally developed genetically modified mustard, an environment ministry document has shown, amid stiff opposition to lab-altered food from domestic activists and politicians.

The mustard variety would have been the first transgenic food crop to be allowed for commercial cultivation. However, the environment ministry’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) has deferred approval despite a panel the ministry supervises giving the GM mustard technical clearance last year.

“Subsequent to receipt of various representations from different stakeholders, matters related to environmental release of transgenic mustard are kept pending for further review,” the GEAC said in minutes of a meeting released on the environment ministry’s web-site marked “confidential and restricted circulation.”

Cotton is the only GM crop allowed to be sold in the world’s second most populous country, where arable land is shrinking. Monsanto dominates the cotton seed market in India and often faces resistance from local companies over its position.

The environment ministry told parliament July 31 that GM mustard had been recommended by GEAC to it for “consideration for environmental release and cultivation.”

An environment ministry spokesperson directed Reuters to GEAC head Amita Prasad, whose office said she was not available. Another GEAC official named on the ministry’s website, Madhumita Biswas, did not respond to requests for comment.

The decision on the mustard represents a setback for Deepak Pental and his colleagues at Delhi University, who worked on developing and testing the variety for years.

Pental, who earlier acknowledged that getting a go-ahead for GM food would be difficult, declined to comment late last month.

GM food has been opposed by activists and politicians in India because of fears it could compromise food safety and biodiversity. Some experts have also questioned claims that GM crops are more productive than normal varieties.

Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which is Hindi for “national volunteer organization” and the ideological parent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party, also opposes GM food and instead wants to promote local varieties.

Even the previous government, led by the opposition Congress party, in 2010 placed a moratorium on GM eggplant, also after an experts panel had given its clearance, effectively bringing the regulatory system to a deadlock before Modi revived it.

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