An Indian scientist whose team has developed a genetically modified (GM) mustard variety that is inching towards a possible commercial launch said he could soon hand to a state agency a GM cotton variety that can rival Monsanto's seeds.
Deepak Pental and his colleagues at the Delhi University worked on GM mustard for around a decade, and a government committee said on Monday it found the seeds to be safe for "food/feed and environment". Reuters reported the technical clearance last month for what could be the country's first GM food crop.
"The government has taken the right path and experts have looked at all the data," Pental told Reuters on Tuesday, acknowledging that public opposition to lab-altered food remains fierce. "Our scientists have the capability to do more, but you will have to strengthen research further, educate people."
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's nationalist government, keen to cut the country's heavy annual food import bill, will soon decide on the commercial launch of the high-yielding mustard and plans to indigenously develop other GM food to reduce reliance on multinationals such as Monsanto.
The move has been opposed by activists and politicians amid fears GM food could compromise food safety and biodiversity. Some experts have also questioned claims that GM crops are more productive than normal varieties.
St. Louis, Missouri-based Monsanto dominates India's GM cotton market, but is embroiled in a high-stakes battle with the government which wants the company to cut the royalty it charges for its technology, apart from a proposal that will make the seed giant share its technology with local firms.
Monsanto has even threatened to pull out, prompting Environment Minister Anil Madhav Dave to say that Indian scientists are capable of meeting the requirements of its farmers on their own.
New Delhi-based Pental said he was willing to help the government with that goal and would approach the state-run Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) to pass on a laboratory-tested GM cotton variety his team has developed over the past decade.
The variety is similar to Monsanto's Bt cotton but can be more resistant to pests, Pental said, adding he handed another GM cotton variety to ICAR last year for further research. No field trial has yet been done on either cotton strands.
This comes at a time when Monsanto has withdrawn an application to sell its next-generation cotton seeds protesting the Modi government's proposal to force it to share its technology with local seed companies, which has also worried other foreign firms such as Bayer, Dow, Dupont Pioneer and Syngenta.
Experts warn that even if India did develop a home-grown GM cotton variety in the next few years, it would struggle to sustain a programme that needs to refresh seeds every decade or so.