Transgenic varieties of seeds have increasingly incensed the fervent discourse on genetically modified (GM) crops. This time, it’s genetically modified mustard that’s making the news.
Deepak Pental, geneticist and former Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University, developed the GM mustard and applied for its commercial release in 2015. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) cleared GM mustard for commercial cultivation in India on May 11, 2017. Now, only the Head of the Environment Ministry’s approval is required to push production of India’s first biotech engineered food crop.
In 2010, Bt Brinjal (a transgenic brinjal variety) was also cleared by GEAC. However, the acting Environment Minister at that time refused approval due to public protests. The entire process has witnessed vehement opposition from anti-GM factions citing concerns of safety, conflicts of interest and lack of transparency in regulatory procedures.
Why do we need GM Mustard?
Production of edible oil is currently insufficient to meet domestic requirements. As such, India imports over 14 million tonnes annually, making it the country’s largest agricultural import in 2016. Advocacy for the GM mustard’s approval is rooted in the anticipated increased mustard productivity. Higher yields will reduce reliance on imports, which could result in better standards of living for mustard farmers through increased income.
Further, the GEAC states that GM mustard is safe for consumption. India has already been consuming imported GM canola and soya oil, which has thus far produced no known adverse effects to prove any toxicity of GM crops.
Why many are still saying ‘no’
While the government is encouraging commercial cultivation, GM opponents have a different story to tell. GM mustard development involves the use of herbicide “glufosinate ammonium.” This is an Herbicide Tolerant (HT) technology used in producing hybrid plants. This means that herbicides will kill surrounding weeds, but not the GM HT plants, making it easier for farmers to use chemicals to kill weeds. According to Kavita Kuruganthi of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), this means that GM mustard cultivation will result in unemployment for thousands of women who support their families by removing weeds in fields.
However, employing this process in genetic modification has many concerned about the potential problem of “superweeds”. The worry is that weeds will respond to the increased chemical usage by developing herbicide-resistant genes. The chemicals which were previously used as herbicides to eradicate weeds are then rendered ineffective against these more robust weed varieties. Farmers, in a desperate measure to get rid of “superweeds”, would be forced to rely on even stronger herbicides, increasing their dependence on chemicals.
Safety concerns—a necessary precaution?
Excessive use of chemicals would have a two-fold effect. It creates health hazards, particularly as GM mustard is a food crop. Some pesticides render produce unsafe for consumption and are harmful to the environment. It will also increase the cost of production, which can only worsen the condition of farmers. The past production of Bt cotton—the only genetically modified crop produced in India—is an illustration of the same. Its production has proved expensive and increased farmer debt.
Due to widespread scientific uncertainty, GM opponents have proposed invoking the precautionary principle. This principle puts the onus on science to prove beyond doubt that GM mustard is safe for consumption and will increase agricultural yields. By this standard, the solution would be tabling GM mustard’s commercial release until a scientific consensus is reached.
Corporations and conflicts of interest
A report by the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food states that “recent mergers have resulted in three powerful corporations” in Indian agriculture: Bayer, ChinaChem, and DowDuPont. The three hold a monopoly over 65% of pesticide sales and 61% of seed sales. The herbicide used in GM mustard development is a patent of Bayer—one of the ‘Titanic Three’. While GM mustard is touted as “swadeshi” (meaning all parts are made in India), it nonetheless serves to profit multinational conglomerates. With predicted reliance on chemicals, costs incurred in procuring pesticides will likely help line the pockets of the private sector.
GM opponents are also displeased by conflicts of interest arising within the government. The GEAC set up a sub-committee for testing the hybrid variety. Later, it released the Assessment of Food and Environmental Safety (AFES) public document as a report on test results. It was created by the Department of Biotechnology, a primary source of funding for the GM mustard scheme, making it a stakeholder in the project. Such vested interests put into question the legitimacy of any tests conducted.
While safety testing is also essential for regulatory approval, often the same party that applies for commercial release conducts these safety tests. In this case, it is Delhi University’s Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants. Considering the GM mustard is the brainchild of the Centre, are these test results valid? This testing is shrouded in secrecy and hidden from public eye. GEAC refused to release test data until GM activists filed a Right to Information (RTI). A lack of transparency in regulation inadvertently leads to growing public distrust.
The case for a cohesive policy
The current policy on GM technology lacks cohesiveness. In the past, India’s policy has been crop-based rather than consistent for all GM crops. Specific policies were developed individually for Bt Cotton and Bt Brinjal in India. These have been approved, refused, or amended based on reactions and concerns raised. Keeping in mind lessons learnt from the past, the government should enact common guidelines for the introduction of GM crops in India. Further, in order to foster public support of GM technology, authorities must understand the importance of transparency. Test data and procedures must be made available to the public so they can make informed decisions.
There is a dire need for a cohesive policy on GM technology. To avoid conflicts of interest, a range of individuals (and not just stakeholders) should be consulted in the process. A participatory approach, with provisions in best interests of farmers, is vital. The government needs to reevaluate its current policy and lift the veil of secrecy if it wants to reinspire public confidence in GM mustard