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Greens force mustard red light

New Delhi, Nov. 7: The Centre has postponed a decision on allowing the cultivation of genetically modified mustard that supporters claim could boost yields and opponents say could be a recipe for environment and health hazards.

Pro-Agro Seeds India, a unit of pharmaceutical and seeds multinational Aventis, today made a presentation before the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, a screening body made of several ministries and research institutions, seeking permission to grow the genetically altered mustard.

However, in the face of protests by environmentalists outside, the members of the committee sought time to analyse and interpret data, particularly relating to biological and human health aspects.

“The talks were inconclusive because some members wanted more data and information on some of the issues,” said A.M. Gokhale, chairperson of the committee. Gokhale added that discussions would continue in the next meeting which is likely to take place in two to four weeks.

In a path-breaking decision in April, the government had allowed the production of genetically modified cotton hybrids, raising the possibility of permission for other transgenic crops. But sceptics pointed out that unlike cotton, mustard is an edible commodity consumed widely in India — the fourth largest producer of the seed in the world.

Critics of the new variety said the mustard is genetically altered to make it resistant to a herbicide called glufosinate, which is also marketed by Pro-Agro. When glufosinate is sprayed on a field, all weeds and plants except the herbicide-proof mustard will perish. The absence of weed will help increase the yield.

Paresh Verma, director of research for Pro-Agro, said the company’s data indicated that transgenic mustard could lead to a 25 per cent increase in both seed and oil. But environmentalists grouped under Greenpeace said the modified mustard will encourage the use of more herbicides, which in turn will raise the risk of toxicity in the oil. The herbicide-resistant genes could turn weeds into super-weeds that will be more difficult to control. This will require greater use of the herbicide.

A fear expressed by environmentalists is that the modified mustard could make consumers resistant to Kanamycin, an antibiotic. It could trigger allergic responses in the absence of exhaustive evaluation of its side effects in India.

But Pro-Agro, based on the outskirts of Delhi, said it has carried out seven years of trials in the mustard-growing states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.

The trials looked at “food and feed safety, environmental safety and bio-safety of the mustard seeds”, Pro-Agro’s Verma said.

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