Indian scientists say new GM mustard seeds safe for commercial cultivation

FILE PHOTO: Women carry fodder for their cattle through a mustard field on Earth Day, on the outskirts of Srinagar

By Mayank Bhardwaj

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A locally developed genetically modified (GM) mustard variety will help India boost crop yields of one of the main oilseeds and cut vegetable oil imports that cost billions of dollars a year, the country's top agricultural scientists said on Monday.

The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), part of India's environment ministry, last week granted environmental clearance for indigenously developed GM mustard seeds, paving the way for commercial use of the first GM food crop.

After the GEAC permission, scientists will now carry out the last rounds of trials and demonstrations before letting farmers grow the transgenic mustard variety developed by Deepak Pental, a geneticist and former vice-chancellor of Delhi University.

"There are strong indications to suggest that new hybrid varieties will finally raise yields of mustard," Trilochan Mohapatra, president of the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS), the top research body of farm scientists, told a news conference.

New hybrid GM seeds could potentially raise mustard yields to 3.0-3.5 tonnes per hectare, he said, up from around 1.3 tonnes now.

Mustard, part of the rapeseed family, has the highest oil content among India's nine main oilseeds, including soybeans and peanuts, but crop yields have stagnated for years.

India, the world's biggest edible oil importer, meets more than 70% of its cooking oil demand through imports.

In the fiscal year to March 31, 2022, New Delhi spent a record $18.99 billion to import vegetable oils, prompting Prime Minister to voice concerns about India's rising vegetable oil import bill.

The GEAC has approved GM mustard seeds after a lengthy, foolproof trial and the new variety is safe for the soil, the environment and human health, said K C Bansal, secretary of NAAS.

Bansal said farmers do not need any herbicide to grow GM mustard seeds and weed killers would only be required at time of seed development. He also said lab-altered GM seeds do not pose any threat to honey bees that flock to mustard flowers for nectar.

Activists have said GM mustard would require widespread use of herbicides and pose a threat to honey bees.

(Reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj; editing by David Evans)