GM mustard row: Hasty call on genetically modified crop could spell disaster; govt must consider long-term effects

Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) – an economic think-tank associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – has in a letter to the prime minister, written on 23rd May, upped the ante against the decision of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) to grant approval for the introduction of genetically modified mustard (GM mustard) in India.

So far, green activists had been at the forefront to oppose GEAC's decision, taken earlier this month. But, given the fact that the government’s premier think-tank, NITI Aayog, has strongly recommended technology-aided practices to increase agricultural productivity and the government-controlled GEAC has given the go-ahead for the introduction of GM mustard, it was only a matter of time before the environment ministry, in particular, and the government, in general, was expected to issue formal sanction for the roll-out of the first genetically modified crop in the country.

But SJM’s move to jump into the multitude of protesting voices has somewhat queered the pitch for GM mustard enthusiasts. As the arguments and counter-arguments rage on, the prime minister has to take a call, as the decision will have far-reaching implications for the agricultural community as a whole.

Five years ago, the Manmohan Singh government had faced a similar dilemma, when opposition to its decision to introduce Bt Brinjal had reached a crescendo. The then environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, had held a public hearing on the objections raised by the social activists and had found merit in them. On the basis of the objections, he had subsequently deferred the decision.

 GM mustard row: Hasty call on genetically modified crop could spell disaster; govt must consider long-term effects

A farmer casts urea on her mustard field. Reuters

That raises a pertinent question: Will the GM mustard recommendation go the Bt Brinjal way? Though both are genetically modified food crop, there is an essential difference between the two and that goes in favour of the former. This has something to do with our nationalistic pride. The Bt brinjal proposal had come to the government from a multinational corporation (MNC) and there was a widespread belief that the MNC concerned would rake in huge profit and the Indian farmer would face adverse consequences in the long run.

But the redeeming feature of the GM mustard proposal lies in it being a domestic proposition – that it is the product of a research team of Delhi University, headed by its former vice-chancellor, Deepak Pental.

The government agencies – which had found the Bt brinjal proposal environmentally acceptable and held the GM mustard in the same light – have argued that our nationalistic spirit has now been assuaged, as the latter is a product of internal research and the entire profit would remain at home.

But there lies a catch. What many activists are saying and what SJM has put forward rather forcefully is that Pental and his team are a mere front for an MNC, Bayer, which would benefit immensely from a positive decision.

The SJM puts it bluntly: "The claim that GM mustard is swadeshi (indigenous) and has been developed in India is completely untrue... In 2002, Proagro Seed Company (Bayer’s subsidiary), applied for commercial approval for a similar construct that Pental and his team are now promoting as HT mustard DMH 11. Bayer’s application at that point was turned down because the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) said that their field trials "did not give evidence of superior yield."

The SJM letter goes on to say: "As is well-known, the hybridisation of GM mustard is achieved by means of the two genes barnase and barstar. The barstar-barnase gene is a patented technology of Bayer Crop Science. Bayer is not a swadeshi company. How is a product patented in their name termed as swadeshi? The fact that Bayer owns the patent of the genes used in Pental’s mustard has been deliberately concealed from the people of India."

Having demolished the swadeshi tag of GM mustard, the SJM letter goes on to present the financial implications of going ahead with the product: "Not only that GM mustard is based on Bayer’s patented barnase-barstar gene system, for which royalty shall be paid, it is said to promote usage of glufosinate, a herbicide from which Bayer will benefit the most through its existing brands."

Clearly, Pental’s team and the promoters of the Bayer company will have a lot to answer for.

It is simply not a question of the swadeshi-videshi debate. The government should consider the long-term implications of the genetically modified crops and, on balance, if it finds that the benefits outweigh the negative effects, it must go ahead irrespective of whether it is Indian or foreign technology.

The biggest factor in favour of the use of genetically modified seeds is that their productivity is supposed to be higher compared to the conventional seeds. The wise men in NITI Aayog believe that GM mustard would greatly enhance our mustard production and consequently, our huge edible oil import bill will come down, saving our precious foreign exchange reserve.

But even this claim has been sought to be demolished by the SJM in its letter. It quotes a report of the Data from Rapeseed Mustard Research (DRMR) to show that existing non-GM varieties of mustard give better yield than what Pental’s GM mustard yields.

It is a dispute that cannot be settled by public debate. The government must do a credible public inquiry, taking both proponents and opponents of the GM mustard into confidence, and come to a definite conclusion – just as Ramesh had done in the case of Bt brinjal.

Another major consideration before a final decision is taken about the GM mustard ought to be the environmental implications. The SJM has made two important points in this regard: "The GM crops (along with the herbicides they promote) are injurious to honey bees, as has been proved the world over… honey bees are important not only for producing honey but also for increasing agricultural yields."

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

The second point it has made is regarding the long-term effect of using the herbicide: It would "make the land under GM mustard cultivation and substantially the adjoining areas unfit for other crops."

This has serious environmental implications. Pental has, of course, rubbished the claims of environmental degradation, but the government has to come clean on the matter based on credible research and field study.

The proponents of GM technology adduce the example of the United States and Canada, which have been happily living with the genetically modified products – food and non-food variety – for decades without any apparent adverse environmental consequences.

But then the opponents of GM technology do cite the example of many European nations, who have banned the entry of GM products into their country, let alone producing them. In fact, 19 members of the European Union – including technology powerhouses like France and Germany – have taken a call to withdraw from the GM mandate, as increasing concerns about its impact on public health are being raised by green activists.

The government of India must, therefore, take a considered decision after weighing all options. It has to keep in mind that even Bt cotton – which is a genetically modified non-food product – that was introduced in India in 2002 by the erstwhile BJP-led government, has now been termed a disaster by the current BJP-led government.

The Union government in an affidavit submitted to the Delhi High Court last year made a candid admission: "Pink bollworm, a major pest to the cotton crop, has already developed resistance in the last two-three years; farmers are a worried lot having sown Bt cotton seeds purchased at a high price."

This is further buttressed by the fact that a majority of the farmers committing suicide are cotton growers.

There is, therefore, a need for the government to go slow on the issue of rolling out GM technology, in order to take a considered view based on both domestic and international concerns. If it decides in haste, it may have to repent at leisure.

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Updated Date: May 25, 2017 15:09:35 IST