Mustard growing

Mustard is grown widely in India. A genetically modified variety would greatly boost yields.

Abhijit Kar Gupta/Flickr

India’s first transgenic food crop edges toward approval

NEW DELHI—India has moved a big step closer toward embracing its first genetically modified (GM) food crop. In a safety review released yesterday, the environment ministry finds that GM mustard “does not raise any public health or safety concerns for human beings and animals.”

Backers feel vindicated. “The biosafety study that has been carried out is as thorough as it can be, and now ideology should not overwhelm scientific evidence,” says Deepak Pental, a plant geneticist at the University of Delhi here who developed the GM variety. Critics are unswayed. “The conclusions are based on inadequate experimentation,” says Pushpa M. Bhargava, a plant molecular biologist and former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, India. Bhargava acknowledged that he had not fully read the report before ScienceInsider went to press.

India in 2004 introduced GM cotton, which now comprises more than 90% of all cotton cultivated in the country. But it has been leery of allowing widespread cultivation of GM food crops. In 2010, the environment ministry put on hold the commercial planting of GM brinjal, an eggplant variety, equipped with a bacterial gene that thwarts insect pests. The moratorium continues and is unlikely to be lifted anytime soon.

Prospects are looking brighter for GM mustard. India is one of the world’s biggest producers of mustard (Brassica juncea), which is cultivated for its edible leaves and oil. The GM variety is equipped with genes from a soil microbe that manipulate pollen development such that the variety produces hybrids more easily in the usually self-pollinating crop. The GM-derived hybrids produce about 25% more seeds—and thus more oil, which is pressed from the seeds—than traditional varieties now in cultivation.

The 133-page safety review raises one cautionary note: It calls for more studies on whether GM mustard could harm honey bees and honey production in mustard-growing areas. And it calls for continued monitoring of insects and other organisms that live in or near mustard fields.

Following a 30-day comment period, the environment ministry’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee will pass judgment on whether GM mustard is safe for planting and human consumption. Bhargava, a staunch GM critic, is calling on the ministry to release the raw data underlying the review’s conclusions. If the committee is favorable to GM mustard, the environment and agriculture ministers would have final say on whether to introduce the variety into farmers’ fields.