Genetically Modified Mustard (GM Mustard), which was surrounded by controversies since its introduction, has moved a step closer to reality with the Genetic Appraisal Committee (GEAC) approving its commercial production.
The final decision on GM Mustard’s commercialisation will ultimately lie, however, with the environment minister Anil Madhav Dave who may either accept it, reject it, or wait for the Supreme Court to take the call on a pending application on the issue.
GM Mustard was developed by Delhi University’s Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants. If approved, it would become the first genetically-modified food crop to be cultivated commercially in India. So far only GM cotton, a non-food crop, is commercially cultivated in the country. In 2010, the GEAC had cleared Bt Brinjal, however, the decision had to be overturned by the then environment minister Jairam ramesh minister, owing to strong protests from the civil society.
Commercial release of GM Mustard was filed by Deepak Pental, the lead scientist who had developed the technology, and former vice-chancellor of Delhi University in 2015. The GEAC had subsequently set up a sub-committee in February last year to examine the safety aspects of its usage. After going through safety standards, the GEAC approved the transgenic variety of mustard safe for human consumption and the environment.
Last month, in its three-year draft action plan, NITI Aayog also backed GM food crops.
Reacting to the clearance of its commercial production by GEAC, Kavitha Kuruganti of Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) said in a press release, “GEAC has proven yet again that it is unscientific and uncaring with regard to citizens’ health and environment. They 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. In this case, it is a hazardous herbicide tolerant food crop at that, which has direct implications for a large number of Indian farmers, agricultural workers and consumers. We have shown over the past several months, through rigorous analysis of available material, how this GM mustard dossier was rigged for favourable results, how it is an unneeded GMO, how it will increase chemicals in our food and farms (because it is a herbicide tolerant GMO) and how regulators should have never allowed it to proceed this far. They had ignored all the many valid questions raised by scientists and others and chose to function behind a shroud of secrecy.”
Why the protest against GM Mustard?
The GM Mustard hybrid and its parental lines are actually Herbicide-Tolerant (HT) crops but its developers did not apply for its environmental release as a HT crop. Therefore, testing protocols were not designed as would be needed for an HT crop’s safety assessment.
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 posing highly adverse impact on sustainable agriculture, rural livelihoods, and the environment.
In particular, GM Mustard will be accompanied by the usage of Glufosinate herbicide. Heavy herbicide use is shown to have impact on health, and poisoning of fields, soil, water and food.
Widespread use of HT crops has also resulted in creation of “super-weeds”. As documented in scientific publications, these weeds have affected 61.2 million acres of cultivable land in the US. HT crops also affect the populations of honeybees and butterflies which are major pollinators.
Additionally, 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.
Environmentalists claim that there are non-seed based agronomic approaches to increase yield such as the System of Mustard Intensification (SMI).
Protests continue against GM Mustard as the GEAC moved ahead with the application for commercialization, ignoring serious concerned raised by several scientists, farmer organisations, citizens, and even the RSS-linked economic policy think-tank Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM).
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had earlier emphasized organic agriculture as a priority through the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana, declaration of Sikkim as a fully organic state, and initiatives promoting organic farming in several states including the North East. This makes agriculture more sustainable and ensures higher income for farmers by reducing costs. However, the PM is also seen as strongly favouring GM crops, citing India’s high edible oil import.
Kuruganti, in collaboration with Sarson Satyagraha, a broad platform of hundreds of NGOs representing farmers, consumers, scientists and others, condemned the green signal to the herbicide tolerant GM Mustard and said, “We hope and urge Minister Anil Madhav Dave to be responsible in his decision-making – this GM mustard should be rejected just a Bt brinjal was, 7 years ago. At least he should fulfill the mandate of his Ministry, even if the regulators did not. He should uphold BJP’s election manifesto promise that GM foods will not be allowed without full scientific evaluation on the long term effects on soil, production and biological impact on consumers.”