For a condiment that finds its way in almost every Indian cuisine, the mustard seed is a symbol of how diverse yet united this country is. But commercial cultivation of its transgenic variant has India divided. Since the government’s apex regulatory body for genetically modified (GM) products, Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) approved the roll-out of GM Mustard in May this year, scientists and farmer groups across India have registered their protest against it. One such complaint took the form of a PIL, whose verdict will be announced in September once the Supreme Court has heard the government’s decision on the same.
Mustard, which is one of India’s primary winter crops sown between mid-October and late November, has had a dismal annual production record for the past 20 years – around 7-8 million tonne. Thus, compelling the government to import large quantities of the same. India reportedly spends $10 billion every year on vegetable oil imports. With the expectation of the lab-altered mustard variety increasing yield by 30%, the government can attempt to reduce the burgeoning import bill.
But resistance to herbicide tolerant (HT) crops is what stalled the roll-out of GM eggplant earlier and that is also the main reason the government has been sitting on the fence on this one. Farmer groups are concerned over the resulting reliance on multinationals for the seeds, a fear that has been addressed by government think tank, Niti Aayog suggesting that the government could source from local companies only. And while the GEAC is confident of its field trials, scientists and activists are crying hoarse over the veracity of these claims. Currently, cotton is the only GM crop allowed in India. Will mustard become the first GM food crop then? Well, we’ll have to wait till September for that one.