HELPING THE government buy peace with activists protesting against granting clearance to the first transgenic food crop in the country, the biotechnology regulator on Friday deferred a decision on allowing the cultivation of a genetically-modified (GM) hybrid mustard.
The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), a body under the Environment Ministry that regulates the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), asked the developer of the hybrid mustard — Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants — at Delhi University, led by former vice-chancellor Deepak Pental, to provide some more information on bio-safety related data.
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The GM variant, called DMH11 (Dhara Mustard Hybrid 11), is said to deliver 25-30 per cent higher mustard-seed yields compared to the best “check” varieties currently being grown in the country.
The hybrid went through Biosafety Research Level-1 (BRL-1) tests in 2011-12 and 2012-13, in Rajasthan, under the coordination of the National Research Centre for Rapeseed-Mustard at Bharatpur, and BRL-2 tests at the Indian Agriculture Research Institute in Delhi and the Punjab Agricultural University in the 2014-15 season.
“The necessary field trials have already been done and we have submitted all bio-safety related data to the regulator,” Pental said.
The institute sought a final approval from the GEAC in December for “environmental release” of the crop. But even before the application process was initiated, anti-GM NGOs and activists cutting across ideological lines — from the Left to RSS-affiliated organisations — began protests, in a recreation of the agitation against Bt brinjal, also a GM crop, in 2010.
They were joined by a number of scientists from several institutions and even Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia who wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi demanding that the process be halted.
Incidentally, the approval for BRL-2 tests of DMH11 was given by the Delhi government in November 2014, when the capital was under President’s Rule.
On Friday, the activists gathered around the Environment Ministry building as the GEAC met in the morning. Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar later assured them that no decision would be taken without “due consideration and consultation”.
In 2010, Bt brinjal had got the final approval from the GEAC but the then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh put an indefinite moratorium on that decision which still holds. In the case of Mustard DMH11, the GEAC put off its decision by at least a few months.
Javadekar said that while the government would not stop scientific research, it would not take any decision in haste.
“We are not rushing through any decision. We need to increase production and productivity in agriculture. We need to give emphasis on science, development, productivity and increased production. But at the same time, we have to be scientific and not risk the lives of our people. So, every decision will be taken only after due deliberation,” he said.
He also indicated that the introduction of GM crops would happen only if other avenues of increasing production were not available. “We cannot let our people starve. But if there are other good alternatives available…our Prime Minister has repeatedly talked about organic farming, and using biotechnology in agriculture. But at the same time, scientific methods are also important,” he said.
The GEAC prepared a time-bound “roadmap” for taking a final decision on DMH11 mustard that involves holding public consultations as well. If the roadmap is followed, the hybrid would be back to the GEAC for approval by the end of May.
Pental said he would provide all the new clarifications that have been sought from him. He said he was also willing to put all the biosafety data in the public domain once the GEAC gives the final approval.
“There is no attempt to keep data secret as some people have been alleging. I will surely make all data public. But that cannot happen before the final approval,” he said.