Seed of doubt

While several studies confirm that GM crops can have serious impact on the safety of both humans and environment, the government is going ahead with GM mustard.
Opposition to GM mustard intensifies in India. (Image: Swadeshi Kheti) Opposition to GM mustard intensifies in India. (Image: Swadeshi Kheti)

Signs of mustard aphid, a key pest of the mustard crop appeared predictably in November last year in Dinesh’s farm. Drifting across the open green fields, it landed on the tender leaves of the mustard crop. “It sets in November during the flowering and pod bearing stage of the crop and lasts till January. It hits our crop yields substantially--often by as much as three quarters--sending the jitters among farmers,” says Dinesh, a farmer in Bharatpur in the eastern plain zone of Rajasthan. Mustard is a common crop in this region and grows in rainfed, marginal and resource poor conditions.

Bharatpur is also home to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s (ICAR) Directorate of Rapeseed-mustard Research Centre which engages in developing crop varieties, some of them known for good yields. “Bajra-mustard sequence is a remunerative option though many farmers do intercropping of mustard with wheat, gram, lentil and potato in this area,” says Dinesh. “The ICAR centre here has been advising farmers to use good quality treated seeds,” he adds. Dinesh has heard of the row over genetically modified or GM mustard through local newspapers but does not know about its full impact and health ramification. “Though Rajasthan is India’s biggest mustard-producing state, it has decided not to allow the commercial use of GM mustard in spite of New Delhi’s push. Agriculture minister Prabhu Lal Saini has raised concerns about its impact on citizens’ health and environment,” he informs.

Genetically modified crops are those whose genetic makeup has been altered using genetic engineering. This technology involves tampering with the DNA of the crops by putting the DNA of various foreign organisms, such as viruses and bacteria, into the crops to improve the yield. This is a relatively new science and most developed nations have restrictions on the production and/or sale of GM crops as it is feared that technology creates unsteady and artificial arrangements of plant genes. Canada and the US have approved GM crops but 64 countries in the world have made it mandatory that the GM foods be labelled.

High yield? Not true

GM mustard, also known by its scientific name (Brassica juncea) hybrid DMH-11 was developed by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants, Delhi University. Also known as Dhara, it has recently been approved by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the government-appointed regulator to examine the safety of GM crops. The final nod is awaited from the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Since the matter has been challenged in the Supreme Court, the Centre will await the court’s approval before giving a go-ahead. The petitioner Aruna Rodrigues is of the view that the claimed yield superiority of the variety over non-GMO varieties and hybrids is a hoax and that there is no purpose to this GM herbicide tolerant mustard for India. Farmers are known to step up the use of toxic herbicides like Roundup manifold in herbicide tolerant crops.

“Whatever may be said in media interviews, officially, on record, including in the documents submitted to the Supreme Court, the only claim made in favour of GM Mustard DMH-11 is that it yields better than parents and not that it yields better than available non-GM seeds. Official reports of various state governments show that the system of mustard intensification based on existing non-GM seeds yield more than the claimed yield levels of DMH-11. So much so, the non-GM hybrid of the same developer, DMH-1 is shown to have a better yield than GM hybrid now sought to be promoted,” says Dr Rajinder Chaudhary, retired professor, department of economics, MD University, Rohtak.

Increasing safety concerns

Proponents of GM mustard argue that India spends around $10 billion annually on vegetable oil imports and this move is likely to slash the import bill. Hundreds of social and environmental activists, farmers and consumers are, however, protesting this move. They see it as harmful to humans and animals alike. Speaking on the GM controversy, Raju Titus, who has been experimenting with natural farming for over two decades in Hoshangabad, Madhya Pradesh says, “Humans cannot create nature, nor are we appreciative of it; we can only destroy it. When world agriculture is moving away from excessive use of chemical fertilizers, insecticides and unnecessary tillage, we are introducing controversial GM crops”.

GM mustard could be the first food crop to be approved and may open the door for over a hundred crops that are in the pipeline. GM cotton, a non-food crop was the first to be allowed in India and in just a few years, the US company Monsanto has dominated 96 percent of the cotton seed market in India. In fact, it charges farmers a royalty fee for growing the crop. This was followed by the first food crop GM brinjal seven years ago, which, despite the GEAC’s approval, was not recommended for commercial use by the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

The supporters of the move say that the technology of GM mustard has been through extensive safety trials and a dossier of safety studies placed in public domain. Avinash Kishore, a research fellow with US-based think tank on food policy, International Food Policy Research Institute, in an article claims that "there is not an iota of truth that GM food has any health hazards. We are already importing a lot of edible oil from Canada and Australia which is GM and there are no reported ill-effects on our health due to them”.

Those opposed to the move challenge the veracity of these tests. “There are so many studies questioning claims of governments and industries promoting GM crops. Similarly, several unaddressed environmental concerns are being repeatedly highlighted by experts. The failure of Bt cotton is before all of us to see. It is disappointing that despite all this, the government is planning to go ahead with this,” says Bhim Singh Rawat, a proponent of organic farming working at South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), a Delhi-based non-profit.

“As an economist, I can say with full responsibility that the process followed in case of GM mustard does not meet the requirements of independent and transparent evaluation. It is officially admitted that the whole chapter on environmental safety is based on the data provided by the applicant,” says Dr Rajinder Chaudhary. “There are concerns about the control of seeds going even further into the hands of multinationals like Monsanto,” says Rahul Banerjee, an Indore-based activist and researcher.

Every time a GM crop is introduced, biotechnology companies scurry to get patents since these crops are new life forms. Patents would restrict their use posing a serious threat to farmers’ sovereignty. The government of India’s policy think-tank Niti Aayog had in August 2016 recommended that to avoid GM seeds from being monopolised by multinationals which may then exploit farmers, their commercial use should be limited to those varieties discovered by the country’s own institutions and companies.

Most of the opponents slam GM crops on the grounds that it will not lead to higher productivity (20-30 percent higher than normal varieties as claimed by its proponents) and would instead impact allied sectors like beekeeping, orchards and ayurvedic medicine. “In the era of climate change, indigenous crops and traditional seeds are the best alternatives to GM crops,” says Rawat. GM crops are likely to contaminate our seed stock and germplasm. “There is also the unknown impact of GM genes spreading across the food chain. Generally, farmers are going to benefit much less in the interim than the seed companies,” says Banerjee.

Less water efficient seeds

The recent nod to GM crops raises important questions about its impact on water. Scientific studies indicate that GM crops are less water efficient. “GM soybean absorbs less water and requires more water than conventional varieties. Previous studies by the same researchers found that GM soybean has reduced lignin content as well as reduced photosynthesis rates, both of which may be contributory underlying mechanisms for reduced water efficiency and absorption.” As per a report by Dr Eva Sirinathsinghji in Science in Society Archive, GM crops are a recipe for disaster. “Evidence is now accumulating about the contamination of streams, rivers, rain, as well as groundwater with GM-associated chemicals including Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicide, while genetic elements such as antibiotic resistant genes are emerging in waterborne microbes. Further, GM crops have been shown to be less water efficient, corroborating farmer’s reports of failing GM crops during droughts,” she writes.

Because, GM crops are likely to contribute to the depletion of this essential resource, as they require more water to grow, more studies are needed to define the extent of the problem.

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