Bt brinjal to GM mustard: Are we now ready to adopt GM food crops?
DMH 11 (Dhara Mustard Hybrid) is the Genetically Modified (GM) version of Mustard that was recently given a nod for commercial cultivation in India by the apex transgenic products regulatory body of the government. DMH 11 is produced by an Indian government institution and said to be commercialised by an Indian company; thus addressing the concerns of farmers of a corporate capture of agriculture. The variety has two main functions that could be attributed to its genetic modification. The first is it makes hybridisation for mustard easier, since mustard is a self-pollinated plant and it is not easy to produce hybrids for mustard. Second, it has a gene that provides the plant with herbicide tolerance.
There are speculations and concerns about what it would mean to approve the cultivation of the first genetically modified food crop in India. Till now, Bt cotton, a non-food crop, has been the only GM crop cultivated in India. Similar attempts were made in 2009 to commercially release Bt brinjal, but were stalled by a moratorium in 2010 by the then minister of MoEF Jairam Ramesh.
From the Bt Brinjal consultation and moratorium to the nod for commercial cultivation of GM Mustard, what really has changed in the Indian agricultural biotechnology landscape that would give sufficient reasons for common citizens and farmers in remote villages to choose GM mustard this time?
Scientists have made claims about the increased productivity of GM mustard, but these claims are not fully supported by available scientific data. On the contrary, civil society organisations have claimed that given the right inputs, some local varieties can produce the same amount of yield with lower farm costs that the GM varieties.
The detrimental impacts of synthetic chemicals in the form of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers are becoming prominently visible for environment and human health. The increase in the cases of cancer in certain farming regions of Punjab is one such example. In this case, just like in the case of Bt cotton (an insect resistant crop), bringing in a herbicide tolerant crop would increase the tendency of farmers to spray chemicals on the crops and jeopardizing their own health as well as that of water bodies, flora and fauna. This means that even if the yields from GM mustard increases, it is highly unlikely that farm incomes would increase proportionately, as a large amount of money would go in buying more herbicides. Also, weeds will develop herbicide tolerance, leading to even more spraying of herbicides.
Many scientists suggest that there should be rules to regulate herbicide spray by farmers, which means they could be penalized or jailed for excessive spraying of chemicals. A similar attempt has been made in the case of farmers who burn agricultural residues on their fields. I met some of these farmers while conducting research, and found that criminalising farmers in this way has a huge negative impact on their dignity and self-esteem rather than changing the practice in any considerable way.
Many scientists also claim that commercialisation is the only way to test the viability of GM mustard and it should be left to farmers and consumers to decide what they actually want. This means that scientists want the market mechanism to facilitate the choices of farmers and consumers rather than the democratic system. Markets operate on the principles of monopoly, persuasion, and asymmetry of information and it would not take a genius to guess that intellectual and property rights could be easily transferred to multinational companies as and when required. The acquisition of well performing domestic companies by big multinational is a routine phenomenon in the pharmaceutical industry.
The mandates of the Bt brinjal consultation were to develop institutional structures and capacity to ensure safety to environmental and human health, farmers’ and consumers’ rights and inclusive decision making for GM crops. Not a single attempt has made in this direction after the Bt brinjal consultation. It remains to be seen whether the government decides on the commercialisation of GM mustard on the basis of half-baked scientific facts and expectations or engages all stakeholders in a more inclusive and democratic manner.
Poonam Pandey is postdoctoral fellow, Maastricht University Science Technology and Society Program (MUSTS), The Netherlands
The views expressed are personal