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Nod for GM mustard could mean a repeat of anti-farm laws stir

With the general elections a little over a year away, a nod for GM food crops could turn out to be as contentious an issue for the BJP
Last Updated : 31 October 2022, 06:03 IST
Last Updated : 31 October 2022, 06:03 IST

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By suddenly giving its nod for the environmental release of genetically modified (GM) herbicide mustard crop - the first edible crop that may enter the food chain in India - the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) has stirred a hornet's nest. The move paves the way for the commercial release of the GM food crop.

In 2017, the same GEAC, which is under the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, withdrew its approval to the same transgenic mustard seed variety (DMH-11) in the face of stiff resistance from people elsewhere and farmers in Punjab where 'Sarson da saag and Makki di roti' are a staple diet. Punjab, along with Haryana, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, is India's biggest cultivator of the mustard crop. Many are wondering what has changed between 2017 and now for the GEAC to approve the cultivation of GM mustard without full and long-term risk assessment of the environment, bio-diversity, people's health and safety, and animal health. There are serious concerns about the honey bees, butterflies and other pollinators going extinct in GM mustard fields.

The last time a GM food crop seed was sought to be introduced in India was in 2009. It was a transgenic brinjal hybrid created by Mahyco, a subsidiary of the US-based seed giant Monsanto, with Indian collaborators. The then environment and forests minister of state, Jairam Ramesh, in the UPA government imposed a moratorium till such time that independent scientific studies established "to the satisfaction of both public and professionals" the safety of the product from the point of view of its long-term impact on human health and environment, including the rich genetic wealth existing in brinjal in India which is home to traditional varieties. His decision came after a month of public consultation in seven cities. The moratorium stays to this day.

Later, the Supreme Court imposed a 10-year moratorium on the commercial release of Bt brinjal based on the recommendation of a Technical Expert Committee (TEC) it had appointed. Bt brinjal, created by inserting a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) into a normal brinjal plant, is said to be capable of resisting insect pests and could reduce the use of pesticides. This was in 2010.

Walking a tightrope on transgenic crops, the BJP then came up with a carefully worded paragraph on GM food crops in its political manifesto for the 2014 general election that said, "Genetically Modified (GM) foods will not be allowed without full scientific evaluation on its long-term effects on soil, production and biological impact on consumers."

However, the 2019 election manifesto had no reference to GM crops. The BJP's focus had shifted to doubling farmers' income by 2022 and to the spread of organic farming as a medium to achieve that goal. In effect, organic farming is contrary to the cultivation of genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant crops that are known to impact soil fertility and destroy biodiversity. Besides, GM is an unsustainable, irreversible technology that gives a monopoly on seeds to a few private companies, and farmers lose their sovereignty over seeds. GM foods are derived from plants whose genes are artificially modified by inserting genetic material from another organism.

There are about 17 countries in the world that have said "no" to GM crops, including Germany and France, and others like the UK insist on strict regulation, while even the US insists on labelling to allow consumers a choice. In India, even though the country is surplus in foodgrains so as to offer grains to other countries, successive governments have given in to monopolistic multi-national seed companies with deep pockets.

In 2002, Monsanto was able to get the Indian government's nod for commercial cultivation of non-food Bt Cotton cash crop seed developed to control bollworm pests in the plant. After the pest developed resistance and increased attacks of secondary pests happened, the company came up with a second-generation seed which put a question mark on the sustainability of GM crops. Bt cotton gradually stopped making news as arguable initial benefits faded away, and farmers were burdened with higher input costs. The worst part was that traditional cotton varieties were wiped out of the country as Monsanto-Mahyco monopolised over 93 per cent production of transgenic cotton. But were any lessons learnt?

A parliamentary standing committee on "Cultivation of GM food Crops" chaired by Basudeb Acharia in 2012 exposed gaps in the government policy on promoting GM crops on bio-safety, biodiversity, sustainability, food and seed sovereignty and farmers' livelihoods. It also questioned the lack of post-release surveillance and monitoring and the liability of the seed company towards farmers in case of failure of the crop.

In 2017, a Rajya Sabha Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology and Environment and Forests chaired by Congress member Renuka Choudhury studied "cultivation of genetically modified food crops-prospects and effects". The panel, without mincing words, underlined that unless the impact of GM food crops was thoroughly examined for bio-safety and socio-economic desirability with retrieval and accountability regime in place, no GM crop should be introduced in the country. The panel questioned how the regulators were relying on data made available by the applicant and expressed concern over bureaucrats of the nodal ministry heading the appraisal committee with no representation from the states, the civil society or `in-house' experts.

While giving its nod to the GM Mustard crop a fortnight ago, the GEAC said the applicant will conduct further studies and coordinated trials jointly with the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) to check out the impact on honey bees and other pollinators. It also enjoined upon the applicant himself to report any risk to the environment, animal or human health that could result from the release of GM mustard in farmers' fields. The GM mustard that has been approved is Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11), developed by a Delhi University institute, that "has the potential" to give higher yield per hectare, apparently to reduce the import bill on edible oils. Mustard oil is widely used in north India. If it goes the GM way, then the options for non-GM edible oil will shrink for Indian consumers, with the markets already flooded with imported GM soybean and canola edible oils.

Environmentalists and farmers are disappointed. Speaking to this writer, farmer leader Yudhvir Singh said Indian farmers were capable of achieving any production target provided they got the price and market risks were covered. "If the government ensures even the minimum support price for mustard, farmers can exceed production targets and reduce dependence on imports. They did it in wheat and pulses and can also do it for mustard."

Without committing to the labelling of GM foods, recently, the Agriculture Minister, in reply to a question in Parliament, said that the GEAC had allowed bio-safety research field trials of two varieties of Bt brinjal in "isolated fields" in seven states. While imposing a moratorium on Bt brinjal in 2010, Ramesh had said seven states were opposed to GM crops, agriculture being a state subject under the Constitution. This time around, the BJP has many more states under its belt but will it ignore the opposition to GM mustard by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliate Swadeshi Jagran Manch and its own Bhartiya Kisan Sangh? With the general elections a little over a year away, a nod for GM food crops could turn out to be as contentious an issue for the BJP as the three farm laws that the government retracted.

(The author is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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Published 31 October 2022, 04:22 IST

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