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UPDATE 1-India gives environmental approval for gene- modified mustard

(Adds government statement, details)

By Mayank Bhardwaj

NEW DELHI, Oct 27 (Reuters) - India has granted environmental clearance for indigenously developed genetically modified (GM) mustard seeds, experts said on Thursday, paving the way for commercial use of its first GM food crop.

The world's biggest importer of edible oils, on which it spends tens of billions of dollars a year, India fills more than 70% of its demand from Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia and Ukraine.

"I can call it a landmark development," said Deepak Pental, a geneticist and former vice-chancellor of Delhi University, who developed the seeds along with his team, in an effort stretching more than a decade.

Commercial use of GM mustard seeds would take a couple of years, however, he added.

In a notice, the government confirmed the highest level of clearance yet for the transgenic mustard crop, also known as rapeseed.

India is streamlining regulations for development of genome edited plants, the science and technology ministry said on Thursday, calling the technology promising, as it offers huge economic potential.

"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 non-profit South Asia Biotech Centre.

He was referring to the panel responsible for the clearance, formally known as the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), which is part of India's environment ministry.

The move follows lengthy reviews and political indecision.

In 2017, Pental's team came close to getting government approval to grow GM mustard seeds commercially, following years of field trials and the analysis of crop data.

But India sat on the fence, prompted by resistance from activists opposing use of transgenic technology in farming.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly urged farmers to boost domestic oilseed production so as to achieve self-reliance, a theme he has pursued since coming to power in New Delhi in 2014.

Modi's western home state of Gujarat was at the forefront of efforts to adopt GM cotton seeds during his time as its chief minister.

Since first allowing GM cultivation with genetically modified cotton in 2002, India has not approved any transgenic crop.

But that move helped transform it into the world's No. 1 producer of cotton and its second-largest exporter, as output jumped fourfold.

Many scientists and agricultural experts have called for faster clearance of GM crops as India's farming acreage shrinks because of rapid urbanisation and erratic weather that threatens output of staple foodgrains such as rice and wheat.

But conservative politicians and advocacy groups have opposed lab-altered crops, in the belief that GM crops could compromise food safety and biodiversity and pose a health hazard. (Reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj in New Delhi; Additional reporting by Tanvi Mehta; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Clarence Fernandez)

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