Genetically Modified Mustard (GM Mustard) was recently given a nod for commercial production by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) even as it was surrounded by controversies.
The approval comes as a contradiction to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s commitment in its election manifesto that “GM foods will not be allowed without full scientific evaluation on the long term effects on soil, production and biological impact on consumers.”
In a report by The Hindu, former Textile Secretary in the Government of India (1996-98), TSR Subramanian, who had previously supported the approval of Bt Cotton – the only genetically enhanced crop produced in India – says, “The alluring promises of higher yield and lower pesticide usage which induced many, including myself as Textile Secretary to the Government of India in the 1990s, to welcome Bt cotton have now been belied. Despite increased fertilisers and irrigation, the expectations of enhanced cotton yield have not been realised.”
In 2010, the GEAC had also cleared Bt Brinjal, however, the decision had to be overturned by the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh, owing to strong protests from the civil society.
“Most of the countries that have higher cotton yields than India, do not grow GM cotton,” adds TSR Subramanian.
The graph shows that the highest yields in mustard are from the five countries which do not grow GM mustard — U.K., France, Poland, Germany and Czech Republic — and not from the GM-growing U.S. or Canada.
“The main advantage trotted out in favour of GM mustard is increased yield – there is sufficient evidence that this claim is a myth. As against this alleged advantage, there are formidable social, economic and environmental reasons which cry out against GM mustard – examination of these has been hardly done by the GEAC,” reports TSR Subramanian.
In similar lines, Greenpeace India points out that the one argument for GM Mustard that people are bound to hear is – GM Mustard should be introduced to cut down on import prices. But GM Mustard does not improve productivity, so it is unlikely that it will cut down on import prices.
“What is necessary, however, is raising the current import prices. We need to ensure there are import tariffs to prevent cheap imported oil from flooding the Indian market and encouraging farmers to grow oil instead,” adds the global environment group.
It has been said by many environmentalists that if India wished to increase mustard production without harming the environment and the citizens, the country would resort to the practice of System of Mustard Intensification, for which successful trials have been done in Bihar through a World Bank project. The results showed higher yields and better income, and all of this without the use of toxic herbicides – which is the aspect of GM Mustard that has remained hidden.
Gaps in scientific evaluation of GM Mustard
In his report, TSR Subramanian points out the numerous deficiencies in the evaluation process of GM Mustard.
“The risks to health, environment and agriculture have not been evaluated even through those inadequate tests which were conducted at the time of Bt brinjal examination, though mustard is far more extensively grown and consumed than brinjal.
The GEAC had itself rejected a similar HT GM mustard proposal by Bayer in 2002. The same reasons apply now.”
In an 11 May 2017 Press Release, Kavitha Kuruganti of Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) had said, “GEAC have failed in their very mandate and purpose for which they have been created, to protect citizens from risks of GMOs. Earlier in the case of Bt brinjal too, they behaved irresponsibly and shamelessly unscientific…They had ignored all the many valid questions raised by scientists and others and chose to function behind a shroud of secrecy.”
Ms Kuruganti also noted that the GM Mustard is actually a Herbicide Tolerant (HT) crop, but its developers did not apply for its environmental release as an HT crop. Incidentally, the GEAC has omitted to have any herbicide-related studies.
Greenpeace India had also expressed its issues with the government’s faulty evaluation and said, “India signed the Cartagena Protocol aiming to protect biodiversity and provide biosafety in 2003, but now, is keen to give the go-ahead to GM Mustard (straight road to monoculture).”
It added that right from the beginning GM Mustard has been shrouded in secrecy. All the pages of the GM report have not been made available to the public despite the fact that the authority is bound to. The only thing made available was a summary report, for which you had to seek permission, visit the ministry and mentally analyse all the pages – that too only for a short period of time in October 2016.
GMWatch, an independent organisation that provides the public with information on GMO foods and crops, reported in 2015, “The central government of India will destroy the country’s mustard seed markets if it approves the commercialisation of GM mustard.”
The organisation continued – “As for the GM mustard developer Deepak Pental’s claim that “the safety of GM Mustard had been proven by the continued cultivation, sale and export of Canola oil in Canada since 1995 and in the US since 2002, which is based on similar transgenic technology” – words fail us. Even the most die-hard pro-GMO zealots admit, when challenged, that all GMOs are different, that each GMO must be assessed on a case-by-case basis, and that evidence of safety or risk on one GMO doesn’t substitute as evidence on another GMO.”
Why are environmentalists against GM Mustard?
Serious concerns have been voiced against HT crops from scientists and experts, particularly in the Indian context. The Technical Expert Committee (TEC) appointed by the Supreme Court, in the 5-member report in 2013, devotes a section to the impact of HT crops which points to its issues with regard to the highly adverse impact on sustainable agriculture, rural livelihoods, and the environment.
“The U.S. is a prime example of a country which has galloped into the GM mode of agriculture. Studies have shown a strong correlation between the growth of GM crops, the herbicides they promote, and diseases such as acute kidney injury, diabetes, autism, Alzheimer’s and cancers in the past 20 years in the U.S,” reports TSR Subramanian.
Widespread use of HT crops has also resulted in the creation of “superweeds”. As documented in scientific publications, these weeds have affected 61.2 million acres of cultivable land in the US.
GM Mustard will be accompanied by the usage of Glufosinate herbicide. Heavy herbicide use is shown to have an impact on health, and poisoning of fields, soil, water and food.
Over 20 species of weeds in the U.S. are now resistant to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicide. Glyphosate has been declared to be a “probable human carcinogen” by the World Health Organisation.
HT crops also affect the populations of honeybees and butterflies – the pollen grains they carry are responsible for 75% of crops grown annually, including mustard.
Adoption of HT crops will drastically impact rural employment in India. It is estimated that if GM mustard is adopted on even a low 25% of mustard cultivation area in the country, it will result in an approximate employment loss of 4.25 crore person-days in rural areas, as per India GM Info.
Rajesh Krishnan, Convenor of Coalition for a GM-Free India had pointed out, “This GM mustard is also a backdoor entry for various other GM crops in the regulatory pipeline – while herbicide tolerance as a trait has been recommended against by committee after committee in the executive, legislative and judiciary-based inquiry processes in India related to GM crops, this GM mustard uses herbicide tolerance. Contamination is inevitable of all other mustard varieties, while India is the Centre of Diversity for mustard.”
As the GM Mustard seeds only need the approval of the environment minister to be commercialised, The Logical Indian hopes to keep its community members informed about the concerns raised by environmentalists and activists. We also urge the government to evaluate all the environmental and economic aspects before approving the commercialisation of GM Mustard.