Government eyeing GM options but facing resistance, says scientist
Delhi University scientist Deepak Pental, the inventor of genetically modified (GM) mustard, has said the Union government appeared interested in his product and was vetting transgenic farm technologies in general, but a “lot of noise” from the right and the left was stalling progress.
Pental, a plant-genetics professor and his team, developed India’s first public-sector driven GM crop, currently under regulatory evaluation.
The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), India’s biotech regulator, has asked Pental to conduct two more sets of tests to assess seed-production efficiency and impact on honey bees. The GEAC may then choose to approve or reject the product. Asked why he thought the government appeared interested, Pental said, “The very fact that the committees are meeting means that government is interested... But the left and the right are opposed .... ,” referring to subcommittee meetings. Pental claims his product has up to 25 times higher output.
India has many grassroots organisations opposed to GM crops. These include the prominent rightwing outfit, Swadeshi Jagran Manch, affiliated to the Rashtriya Samyamsevak Sangh. On the other hand, the ‘Coalition for a GM-free India’ is an umbrella body that includes many left-leaning outfits.
Pental’s product was nearly approved in 2017. Fresh tests were ordered after the environment ministry intervened following objections based on scientific evidence, said Kavitha Kuruganti, a key anti-GM campaigner.
These tests were asked to be done in Punjab and Delhi, but these states must individually grant permissions. Pental said he would instead request the regulator to obtain these clearances. “If they (states) have any queries, who would they believe?... Of course the GEAC,” he said.
Anti-GM experts say Pental’s product uses glufosinate, a weedkiller (herbicide) similar to glyphosate, which is linked to cancer. In a major verdict in August, a US jury ruled that glyphosatebased weedkillers were linked to cancer. Pental said all agro-chemicals must be used in recommended quantities.
“That Indian farmers desperately use their own concoctions of pesticides is well known. Speaking something theoretically does not apply in field conditions...,” Kuruganti said.
Pental said his product uses the herbicide in limited quantity only for seed production and farmers won’t need it at all. Glyphosate isn’t banned anywhere, he added.