Officials may decide on Friday whether to allow what could be India's first genetically modified (GM) food crop, mustard, spurred by food security concerns and as China makes a big bet on the technology with a $43 billion bid for seed firm Syngenta.

Permitting GM food crops is a big call for a country that spends tens of billions of dollars importing edible oils and other food items every year.

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.

Two straight droughts for the first time in three decades have made India a net importer of some food products for the first time in years.

If a commercial launch of GM mustard is allowed, it could pave the way for other food crops such as corn varieties developed by Monsanto, in one of the world's biggest farm markets.

"I see this as a test case and I am hopeful," said Deepak Pental, the lead scientist who used government grants to conduct tests on the oilseed crop over the past decade.

"How can we keep on running so scared when there is so much need for improving agricultural production?"

But even winning the panel's approval is no guarantee that the GM crop would be introduced.

Political and public opposition to lab-altered food remains strong amid fears they could compromise food safety and biodiversity. There is also suspicion among farmers that their introduction would give foreign seed suppliers too much control.

"Why is the government imposing its decision on farmers on an unsafe and unproven technology, despite the availability of good varieties of mustard in our country?" Manish Sisodia, Delhi's deputy chief minister, told Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a letter this week.

"We pray to you not to compromise our agriculture, citizens' health and the environment under pressure from a handful of foreign companies."