In Brief
India is getting ready for its first transgenic food crop, as government findings declare a GM mustard to be safe. Supporters of GM crops are elated, while critics remain hesitant to support development of a crop that has the potential to increase income for Indian farmers.

Not a Health Concern

A genetically engineered crop is making its way towards Indian plates. India’s environment ministry released a safety assessment this week detailing the findings of a biosafety study conducted on genetically engineered mustard (Brassica juncea). The study reports that the engineered mustard “does not raise any public health or safety concerns for human beings and animals.”

Mustard cultivation is a big industry in India for its leaves and oil. In fact, the country is one largest producers of mustard in the world. The engineered version of the crop is more prone to developing hybrids, courtesy of a gene from a soil microbe that affects pollen development. These hybrids tend to produce about 25% more seeds. One of the products cultivated from the plants is the oil from these seeds, making the potential for income is greater.

Credits: Reuters
Photo credits: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee

Yay and Naysayers

University of Delhi plant geneticist Deepak Pental, who developed this engineered variety of mustard, celebrate the government’s decision. “The biosafety study that has been carried out is as thorough as it can be, and now ideology should not overwhelm scientific evidence,” says Pental.

Yet opposition is not lacking. Long-standing GM crops critic Pushpa M. Bhargava is not convinced. “The conclusions are based on inadequate experimentation,” Bhargava, a plant molecular biologist and former director of the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, points out.

For the government’s part, it does leave a note of caution, asking for more studies to check if the GM mustard can be harmful to honey bees and honey production in areas of mustard cultivation. After a mandatory 30-day comment period the government’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee will pass a definitive judgment regarding how safe the GM mustard is for planting and human consumption. 

This GM mustard is not India’s first engineered plant. In 2004, GM cotton was introduced in the country, which now comprises 90% of India’s cotton produce.