NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India needs more data before deciding whether to permit commercial growing of its first genetically modified food crop, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said on Friday, but indicated it would not stand "in the way of science" despite protests.
Javadekar said the evaluation process would continue before the country moves ahead with the use of a technology that promises better farm yields but sharply divides public opinion.
A committee of government and independent experts is seeking more information from a team of Indian scientists who have spent almost a decade on laboratory and field trials for a GM mustard crop.
"We will not rush through, but we will also not come in the way of science," Javadekar told reporters. "We have to feed more than a billion mouths and we have to raise productivity... (but)we will not compromise on people's health."
The meeting, the third held to evaluate field trial data on GM mustard this year, had raised hopes among scientists that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government is keen to push technology to lift food productivity.
India spends billions of dollars every year importing edible oils and other food items to help offset its abysmal food productivity levels.
Farmers are stuck with old technology, yields are at a fraction of global levels, cultivable land is shrinking and weather patterns have become less predictable.
Some farm economists have said India should speed up efforts to embrace GM foods after China took a giant leap towards GM with its bid for Swiss transgenic seed developer Syngenta.
But public and political opposition to transgenic food remains strong amid fears they could compromise food safety and biodiversity.
About 200 placard-holding protesters shouted anti-GM slogans outside Javadekar's office earlier on Friday.
Kapil Mishra, a minister in Delhi state who met Javadekar, called it a win for those resisting GM crops.
"(A) small victory but a long battle ahead," he said on Twitter.
India placed a moratorium on GM aubergine in 2010, fearing the effect on food safety and biodiversity. That effectively brought the regulatory system to deadlock.
However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was instrumental in making Gujarat state the leading user of GM cotton in India when he was chief minister, cleared several field trials soon after taking office in New Delhi in 2014.
BMI Research said in a note that though some Asian governments are becoming more open to the idea of allowing GM food cultivation, the adoption rate of GM crops will remain slow.
Reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj; Writing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Jan Harvey