India is moving closer to approving its first genetically modified food crop, after the environmental ministry released a safety report declaring that the genetically modified mustard in question “does not raise any public health or safety concerns for human beings and animals.”

While India approved GM cotton in 2004, now accounting for 90 percent of the cotton grown in India, it has been more cautious when it comes to GM food crops. In February of 2010, the environmental ministry put a moratorium on the planting of a GM eggplant variety, modified to protect the crop from insects. So far, the ministry has shown no signs of a change of heart when it comes to the GM eggplant. Critics of the moratorium point out the success of the GM eggplant variety, called Bt brinjal, in neighboring countries such as Bangladesh.

Mustard is cultivated in India for its leaves and oil, and the GM version includes genes from a microbe which influences pollen development. The end result is that the GM mustard will produce over 25 percent more seeds, which will result in more oil.

Deepak Pental, a plant geneticist at the University of Delhi, applauded the results of the safety review, saying “The biosafety study that has been carried out is as thorough as it can be, and now ideology should not overwhelm scientific evidence.” Meanwhile, critics have questioned the methodology of the study, with plant molecular biologist Pushpa M. Bhargava claiming that “the conclusions are based on inadequate experimentation.”

The safety review does caution that more studies are needed in one area – whether or not the GM mustard could be harmful to bees and honey production in areas in which it is cultivated. To that end, it emphasizes the need for ongoing monitoring of insects and other life near fields containing the genetically modified mustard plants.

The safety review is not the final approval needed before the crop is considered safe to plant. After a 30-day comment period following the safety review, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee of the environmental ministry will give a judgement as to whether or not GM mustard is safe for the environment and human consumption. Bhargava, alongside other critics of GMOs, is calling for the environmental ministry to release the raw data involved in the safety study. If the judgement of the committee is the crops are indeed safe, the final judgement will be up to the environmental and agricultural ministers.

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