Expert Speak India Matters
Published on May 24, 2017
Should India go for GM Mustard?

Source Image: Abhijit Kar/CC BY 2.0

A mustard field in Nadia district, West Bengal

A team of scientists in the Delhi University has developed Genetically Modified (GM) mustard or DMH11 and it may be granted permission to be grown commercially in the forthcoming rabi season, provided the Supreme Court allows it. The issue is before the Supreme Court as Aruna Roderigues, a biotechnologist and activist, has filed a case last year seeking a stay on the commercial release of GM mustard.

Recently, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) cleared GM mustard for commercial cultivation and has sent it for the approval of the union environment ministry. Bt Brinjal was also cleared for cultivation in 2010, but was stopped. For years, the GM controversy has occupied people's minds in India. There are people for and against the GM food while most are unaware of what it is about. Yet, it is something India has to decide fast because there are many severe problems in agriculture, specially related to climate change and rapid urbanisation which will require a quick solution. How to handle the burgeoning food problem? Many believe that by allowing GM food, India's problems will be solved.

GM food, however, is not an emotive or political issue and should be looked at from a purely scientific point of you. Everyone would agree that if such food is found to be causing tumours and cancers in rats, it should not be allowed.

Those in favour point out that there is overwhelming evidence about the safety of GM food crops. But the controversy still rages. The vehement opposition from RSS' economic wing, the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, and the Bhartiya Kisan Union are an important stumbling block. That GM food is safe for human consumption is quite visible from the fact that nearly all the corn and soya bean grown in the US and Canada are GM crops and people have been consuming these for decades. Many European Union member-countries, however, have banned GM crops outright and so also have many countries in Africa.

According to scientists, the human race has been selectively breeding crops and altering plant genomes for millennia. And for around 60 years, scientists have been using mutagenic techniques to alter DNA of plants through radiation and chemicals, creating new strains of wheat, rice, peanuts and pears that have become common. Nobody has objected to this practice so far.

The GM technique is different. It enables scientists to insert - into a plant's genome a single gene or a few of them from another species of plant or even from bacterium, virus or an animal. This process can have long term effects which may not be visible at the present moment but may unfold later.

It is therefore better to keep a close eye on health and environmental impact and use more testing to determine its safety, especially when it is a food item consumed by a vast population.

According to Roderigues, GM crops contaminate nearby plants, thus endangering biodiversity. She has criticised GEAC for lack of transparency. The agency, she said, did not share its full biosafety assessment of the GM Mustard publicly online contrary to the order of the government's Central Information Commission which enforces rights to information.

Those who are against GM mustard have pointed out these crops create super weeds which are herbicide resistant and a threat to other crops.  Another environmental issue is regarding the negative impact on non-target organisms, loss of conventional plants and ability of GM organisms to introduce engineered genes to native fauna as well as increased use of chemicals in agriculture. The harmful effects on human body, according to biotechnologist Pushpa Bhargava, are allergies and cancers in children as well as transferal of antibiotic resistant genes from GM foods to the humans.

The big point in favour of the proposed commercialisation of GM mustard seed is that it has been developed by our own scientists and hence the question of royalty to multinational firms like Monsanto does not arise.

Monsanto has withdrawn its application for seeking approval for its next generation of genetically modified cotton seeds in India in August 2016. Its Bt Cotton was the first GM crop allowed in India and Bollard I produced was given the go ahead in 2002. Monsanto in 2006 released Bollard II. The introduction of Bt cotton has increased the yield of cotton manifold – increasing acreage and exports of cotton. Monsanto raked in a huge royalty ‘trait fee’,  but when it was found that the cotton plant was again infested by pink bollworms, the government reduced the royalty and ordered a cap on the prices of Bt Cotton seeds which was unacceptable to Monsanto’s Indian joint venture Mahyco Monsanto Biotec.

Coming back to GM mustard, if its commercialisation does take place, it will open a new era of GM food crops in India which could be drought and pest resistant and also have higher yields. GM mustard is supposed to increase productivity by 30 per cent.  India does need an agricultural revolution as the sector is facing low productivity, susceptibility to drought and pest attacks. These problems have led to the low incomes of farmers who get into a debt trap as crops fail and this has caused hardships and suicides.

Prime Minister Modi has promised a doubling of incomes which may be difficult if the problems in agriculture are not solved. The Niti Ayog has been in favour of GM crops to increase the yield per acre of several crops, but Mustard has had a bountiful harvest last year.

Our dependence on oil imports have been caused by cheap imports of palm oil and the consequent diversion of land under oil seeds to other crops.  Many scientists have questioned the claim that GM crops have higher yields and they are sustainable over time.

However, as there is considerable amount of uncertainty regarding the impact of GM food on the environment, insects and animals, the decision of allowing GM mustard has to be weighed carefully. There has to be clear evidence about the safety of GM foods in India. The questions also arise about having GM seed banks and their preservation. The BJP’s manifesto (2014) before the general elections was clear about this: “GM foods will not be allowed without full scientific evaluation on the long term effects on soil, production and biological impact on consumers.” Thus people should be made fully aware of all the pros and cons of GM foods and should be consulted before any decision is taken because they have a right to know what they eat.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


David Rusnok

David Rusnok

David Rusnok Researcher Strengthening National Climate Policy Implementation (SNAPFI) project DIW Germany

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