The regulator for genetically modified (GM) crops in its meeting on March 21 declined to reinforce its decision in May 2017 recommending approval for commercial cultivation of the GM mustard hybrid developed by a team of Delhi University scientists.
Instead it decided to seek data on the impact of the hybrid on honeybees, other pollinators and soil microbes.
The minutes of Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC)'s March meeting were posted on its site on Monday. At the meeting, the GEAC asserted that the issues in the representations it received against its May 2017 decision to recommend approval for cultivation of GM mustard by farmers had already been deliberated upon and a change in stance was not warranted.
But since environment minister Harsh Vardhan had referred back to it the application for approval of environmental release of GM mustard -- and presumably out of deference to him -- the GEAC has decided to ask the developers for a detailed protocol for conducting field trials in five-acre plots at two or three different locations.
"I see it as a positive decision," said geneticist and former Delhi University Vice-Chancellor Deepak Pental, who leads the team of DU mustard scientists. Even If the minister acted on the GEAC's recommendation and gave his approval, it would take about two years to produce GM mustard hybrid seeds for large-scale planting.
The team can use the five-acre field demonstrations to produce seed, while studying the impact on bees, pollinators and soil microbes. It can also invite farmers over to see for themselves and be convinced.
The five-acre field demonstration plots will have to be isolated from non-GM mustard by about 50-100 metres. Pental does not expect any adverse impact. Data on bees generated in Australia and Canada, which allow cultivation of GM rapeseed (related to mustard) makes him hopeful.
A 2014 study by Tamil Nadu Agricultural University showed honey bees thriving in fields of genetically-engineered cotton because being naturally toxic to bollworms they didn't need pesticide sprays.
Pental wants to work with relevant experts from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), as his programme is publicly funded. He would like to conduct trails at ICAR institutes, state agricultural university field stations and Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs). The more the number of trials the better, he says.
The March meeting of the GEAC took place after 10 months. Minister Vardhan does not seem to be in favour of approving GM mustard. Earlier, at a book release function in Delhi he had commended Jairam Ramesh, who as environment minister in the Congress-led Manmohan Singh government had blocked the release of genetically-engineered brinjal in 2010.
Vardhan is believed to be aligned to the thinking of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) -- an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh -- which is vehemently opposed to GM crops. In response to a right to information application by this correspondent, the environment ministry furnished 11 documents which the ministry said it received after the GEAC's May 2017 decision. There was none from the SJM. Some of these were photocopies of newspaper articles. Half of them were from scientists and scientific bodies urging approval.
In light of the minister's views, the GEAC decision may appeared to be quite convenient for the government. The field trials for impact on honeybees will have to be held in the coming winter season. It will enable Vardhan to avoid a decision on the commercial release of GM mustard as the term of the government would have ended by the time the data is collected and analysed.
(Vivian Fernandes is editor of www.smartindianagriculture.com. He can be reached at email@example.com) --IANS Vivian/hs
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