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RPT-India gives environmental clearance for genetically modified mustard

(Repeats for wider distribution)

By Mayank Bhardwaj

NEW DELHI, Oct 27 (Reuters) - A government panel has approved an application seeking environmental clearance of indigenously developed genetically modified (GM) mustard seeds, experts said, paving the way for commercial use of the country's first GM food crop.

The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), a unit of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, has approved the GM mustard seeds, said a top scientist and an agricultural expert in India.

Three government sources, who requested anonymity in line with official rules, also confirmed the clearance.

The lab-altered mustard seeds were developed by Deepak Pental, a scientist and former vice-chancellor of Delhi University, and his team. Pental and his associates have worked on GM mustard for more than a decade.

"I can call it a landmark development," Pental told Reuters on Wednesday.

He said the commercial use of GM mustard seeds would take a couple of years.

India is the world's biggest importer of edible oils. It spends tens of billions of dollars to import cooking oils every year, as the country meets more than 70% of its vegetable oil demand through imports from Malaysia, Indonesia, Brazil, Argentina, Russia and Ukraine.

"The decision of GEAC recognises the potential of biotechnology to address the issue of India's growing edible oil imports," said Bhagirath Choudhary, director of the South Asia Biotech Centre, a nonprofit scientific society.

Many scientists and agricultural experts have called for faster clearance of GM crops in India, where farms are shrinking due to rapid urbanisation and erratic weather patterns threatening the output of staples such as rice and wheat.

But conservative politicians and advocacy groups have opposed lab-altered crops, as they believe that GM crops could compromise food safety and biodiversity and also pose a health hazard.

India first allowed GM cultivation in 2002 with genetically modified cotton. Apart from GM cotton, New Delhi has not approved any other transgenic crop.

GM cotton helped transform India into the world's No. 1 cotton producer and second-largest exporter of the fibre as output jumped fourfold. (Reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj in New Delhi Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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