New Delhi: The opposition to genetically modified or GM Mustard reached the gates of the environment ministry on Wednesday with a demonstration at the ministry’s Delhi office against the approval granted to the GM crop by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, India’s apex regulator for GMOs.
With the GEAC approval, the decision to allow commercial plantation lies with the environment ministry. If approved GM Mustard will become the first GM food crop to be commercially grown in the country.
Till now only one GM crop, Bt Cotton, is grown in Indian fields. The only other food crop to receive all approvals was Bt Brinjal. However, then environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, blocked its introduction and placed an indefinite moratorium on it.
“It is a conspiracy against farmers, the environment and the public,” one of the speakers at Wednesday’s demonstration held under the banner of Sarson Satyagraha, said.
“We do not want GM Mustard,” the crowd of about a hundred chanted. “In the name of science, they are doing it will make farmers slaves, in the name of science they are trying to double the income of multinationals,” Kavita Kuruganti, an activist associated with the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, said. “If the government brings this variety farmers will have to buy seeds from these companies every year.”
- Mar 26, 2002: India approves Bt cotton, India’s first Genetically Modified (GM) crop. It is adopted widely by Indian farmers. The long-term impacts of the introduction are still being studied.
- 2005: Activists file petition in Supreme Court against GMOs
- 2009: The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), India’s apex regulator for GMOs, approves India’s first GM food crop BT Brinjal
- 2010: After nation-wide consultations, UPA government blocks commercial planting of Bt Brinjal
- Aug 10, 2011: GEAC allows trials for second generation GM food crops. The move is seen as the UPA government’s bid to promote biotechnology to tackle India’s food security problems
- 2013: Environment ministry stops GM trials based on a Supreme Court-appointed panel recommendation
- 2014: BJP’s election manifesto says GM crops would not be allowed without a study of its "long-term" effects.
- July 18, 2014: Narendra Modi government allows field trials despite opposition from RSS-affiliates.
- Aug 11, 2014: The government tells parliament that there is no "credible scientific" proof yet to show that GM crops pose any "risk" to human health.
- Oct 2014: The environment ministry reveals in an RTI that it permitted a Delhi University research group to conduct trials for a GM Mustard variety and Maharashtra-based Bejo Seeds Pvt Ltd to test Bt Brinjal
- Sep 24, 2015: The DU research group files an application with the GEAC for its GM mustard variety
- May 21, 2016: Modi government revamps the regulatory framework that guides how agricultural biotech companies such as Monsanto can do business in India, placing restrictions on royalties and making it compulsory for companies to give their technology to anyone willing to license it at state-fixed prices.
- Sep 7, 2016: GEAC releases an assessment report of GM Mustard on its website for public comments.
- Oct 7, 2016: SC places a stay on the commercial release of GM Mustard in India and asks the central government to invite public comments on the issue.
- Oct 24, 2016: Centre files affidavit with SC, says curbs by the top court on field trials of GM crops harmed the "competitiveness" of the country’s public-funded agriculture programmes and negatively impacted private investments
- May 11, 2017: Central biotech regulator grants clearance for commercial cultivation of GM mustard; approval from Centre is pending.
India has struggled for many years with this issue, with a deep divide between dissenters and supporters. There is vehement opposition from some farmer groups that it will lead to industrialisation of food production, compromising the food security of the nation without leading to the promised increase in yields. Both sides accuse the other of misleading the public.
“This is all nonsense,” Deepak Pental, a professor of genetics at the University of Delhi who led the research team that produced the GM variety called DMH-11, said. “They are trying to fool the public that there are no yield increases by comparing data from different trials.”
One of the sticking points is that the GM seeds are sold by big multinationals at prices that are many times higher than the seeds that the farmers use now. Global agriculture giant Monsanto produces the Bt cotton seeds that are used in India and earns royalties for it. Over 95% of cotton cultivation in India is Bt cotton today.
There is an important difference between the Bt Cotton case and this GM mustard variety because it has been developed by a publicly -funded Indian institution rather than a foreign multinational. Proponents argue that higher yields from GM variety make the investment worth it, especially as a growing population puts pressure on the food production. Pental said the seeds will be available to farmers are much cheaper rates than other GM crop seeds.
There are also biosafety fears associated with it, once introduced there is uncertainty about how a modified gene will impact the larger food system. Opponents argue that it may contaminate other species. Pental maintains that all biosafety considerations were evaluated over 3-4 years and only then was an application was submitted. The aim was to ensure that only the desirable character was changed and that all other characteristics remained the same as the parent variety.
Rajinder Choudhury, a former professor of economics who is now an advisor to the Kudreti Kheti Abhiyan in Haryana, which supports organic farming, said that his problem was that no independent evaluation was conducted to assess the impact of introducing the GM variety.
India is heavily dependent on imports to meet its enormous demand for edible oils including mustard oil. Edible oils are used in generous amounts in Indian cooking. The country produced 5.8 Million Tonnes (MT) of Mustard seeds in 2015-16, while in 2016-17 it is expected to go up to 6.5-7 MT. Incremental gains in productivity may not be enough to feed the country’s growing population.
Pental expressed exasperation at the opposition. “Partly it is ideological, partly it is a lack of understanding, we are more emotional than scientific,” he said. “What is the anguish? Your productivity will remain low, you will only encourage malnutrition and hunger.”
The GEAC approval puts the Modi government in an unenviable position with some RSS affiliated groups standing in opposition to the introduction of GM food crops. The Modi government turn towards portraying itself a pro-farmer party in the wake of demonetisation may suffer a setback if they are seen as compromising the interest of small and marginal farmers.
“This government which keeps talking about organic farming is bringing poison into the country, why are they forcing the country to eat poison,” Badrinarayan Choudhury, General-secretary of Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, the RSS farmers’ wing, who was part of the demonstration, said. “We will go from village to village to raise awareness among farmers, we will bring them to the streets in protest,” he said.
The Rabi sowing season starts in October if the approvals go through the GM variety might be in Indian fields as early as this year.
“Ultimately it is a critical decision whether the country wants GM Mustard or food crops,” Pental said.