GM crops produce higher yields, but activists are worried it could reduce plant biodiversity. (Photo: iStock)
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What’s the Big Deal With Genetically Modified Mustard?

Genetically modified crops are at the forefront of a controversy once again. A recent report released by the Environment Ministry found genetically modified mustard safe for human health. The hybrids are supposed to improve yield by 25 to 30 percent.

But activists say the report from a sub-committee of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), an expert body appointed by the ministry, is meaningless. Six years ago, activists convinced the government to put an indefinite moratorium on BT brinjal, and now they want to do the same with mustard.

Members of the GEAC say they did not review the sub-committee report before it was released publicly. The government will accept comments on the findings until 5 October.

Also Read: DeQoded: The GM Crops Controversy Explained

(Photo: iStockphoto)
(Photo: iStockphoto)

Crops are genetically modified to improve their resistance to drought, heat and pests– an important issue in an era when climate change is making existing agricultural challenges worse. Proponents of GMOs argue that these hybrids reduce the necessity for pesticides required to grow food.

At the same time, genetic modification can make crops much more productive. GM cotton more than doubled cotton yield since it was adopted in 2001.

Mustard flowers. (Photo: iStock)
Mustard flowers. (Photo: iStock)

But activists say this is not the case for GM mustard. In an effort to discourage the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee from accepting the crop’s use, activists, independent scientists and farmers argued that data in favour of modified mustard had been rigged.

According to the Coalition for a GM-free India, the suggestion that GM mustard produces 25 percent more yield than conventional mustard is misleading because researchers compared the modified plant to conventional varieties that tend to be less productive to begin with.

The government and its regulators have built an environment which supports the interests of seed and chemical manufacturers, at the expense of farmers and other citizens, despite numerous risks and evidence of fraudulent science.
Yudhvir Singh, Convenor, Indian Coordination Committee of Farmers’ Movements
Mustard fields. (Photo: iStock)
Mustard fields. (Photo: iStock)

Activists are also concerned that the introduction of genetically modified foods could reduce biodiversity, which is important for plant survival. Biodiversity allows plants to adapt to external changes and ensure food production, according to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Mustard is central to India’s food culture. The Technical Expert Committee of the Supreme Court has clearly recommended that there should be no introduction of GMOs in some crops because of risks of contamination.
Dr Vandana Shiva, physicist and environmental activist
Most cotton plantations in India use genetically modified seeds. (Photo: iStock)
Most cotton plantations in India use genetically modified seeds. (Photo: iStock)

The battle for and against GMOs still rages and neither side seems ready to relent.

Anti-GMO activists say corporations developing genetically modified seeds do not have the best interests of farmers in sight. GM seeds tend to be more expensive than conventional varieties and farmers have to buy them every year– they can’t replant seeds.

But pro-GMO activists say the higher yield of genetically modified crops makes up for the higher cost of acquiring the seeds. They also point to an oft-cited but misleading study used by anti-GMO activists. In 2012, a study claimed that claimed genetically modified corn causes tumours in rats. The study was largely discredited a year later.

For now, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee is not ready to make a decision about mustard and genetically modified plants remain both a political and scientific issue.

This piece was originally published on 24 June 2016 when the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee deferred a decision that would allow farmers to grow GM mustard.

(With inputs from Times of India and Indian Express)