A farmer checks mustard flowers in a field on the outskirts of Ajmer in India.

Mustard is a vital source of cooking oil in India but suffers from low yields.Credit: Himanshu Sharma/AFP via Getty

The row over transgenic crops in India is back. On 18 October, India’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) approved the evaluation, in open fields, of genetically modified (GM) mustard, a source of cooking oil — a key step on the path to commercial-scale cultivation. But a network of organizations that opposes GM crops is contesting the approval: hearings are scheduled to begin in India’s highest court on 17 November. If the apex court upholds the GEAC decision, it would be a first for a GM food crop in India — a major step that could improve food security in what will soon be the world’s most populous nation, amid the challenges of global warming. But India has a history of protracted legal wrangling over such decisions. Will India ever allow transgenic food crops, and if so, when?

Many scientists welcome the decision by the GEAC. The approval paves the way for the application of genetic modification to many other crops, which could lower their cost, says crop geneticist Rakesh Tuli at Panjab University in Chandigarh.

The GEAC has made “a landmark decision” that could clear the way for more GM crops to receive clearance for commercialization, agrees geneticist Deepak Pental, whose team at the University of Delhi developed and tested the GM mustard crop in question. “More importantly, the decision will encourage scientists both in the public and private sector to develop better varieties and hybrids which can cope with pests and predicted vagaries of the weather due to global warming.”

Whether India's apex court will agree with these scientists is unknown. "The court has to decide whether science-based recommendations by the national regulator or public sentiments should prevail,” says Tuli.

Opposition network

The network of opposing organizations, called the Coalition for a GM-Free India, claims a lack of scientific rigour in the GEAC decision, including inadequate tests on the impact of GM mustard on bees and other pollinators, and on the impact of herbicide tolerance that one of the foreign genes introduced in the mustard confers. Pental contests this, saying all relevant tests have been carried out and the data submitted.

Other opponents of the GEAC approval include two organizations backed by right-wing supporters of the ruling government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi: the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch (the Forum for National Awakening), and the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (Indian Farmers Association) that has previously called for a halt to GM crop trials in fields.

Scientists observing the case say that if the court is satisfied, or simply requests clarifications of existing data or minor additional data, the case could be resolved two or three months after the start of the hearings. But should the court seek new data, such as the effects of GM mustard oil in monkeys or chimpanzees, the process could take up to five years.

It's not the first time the GEAC has cleared transgenic mustard for evaluation in open fields: its gave its first approval in 2017. But the GEAC itself then went on to request further data on the impact on honeybees and other pollinators, and on soil microbial diversity, following feedback from both supporters and opponents.

Mustard saga

India’s GM mustard saga began almost four decades ago, when Pental’s team first aimed to improve the yield of mustard (Brassica juncea) in India. These are typically lower than the global average because of a lack of the nutrient boron in one-third of Indian soils, and a dependence on rainwater rather than irrigation in most mustard-growing regions. Pental’s team first produced the GM mustard now under consideration — Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH 11) — in 2002. It contains three genes from Bacillus amyloliquefaciens, a soil bacterium. Two prevent self-pollination and one confers herbicide tolerance.

So far, India has approved only one other GM crop for commercial cultivation: GM cotton in 2002. In 2009, GEAC cleared transgenic aubergine or eggplant, also called Bt brinjal, for evaluation. But that effort stalled following a strong public backlash and the recommendations of aubergine-growing Indian states.

A regulatory system that speeds up approvals “is the need of the hour”, says Rajesh Gokhale, secretary of India’s Department of Biotechnology, the main funder of the country’s biotechnology research. “As climate change is impacting agricultural productivity, we need to invest in new technologies to be future-ready and to ensure food and nutritional security of our country.”

Even if the apex court rules in favour of the GEAC's most recent approval of GM mustard, it would be just the start of the commercialization process. Should the crop pass the evaluations, which would be carried out by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, under India’s federal structure, it would then be up to individual states to decide whether to grow GM mustard.