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Modi Government Must Give Farmers Veto on GM Mustard

Rather than blocking the technology, the anti-GM activists must let GM mustard prove itself in the fields.

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Ever since the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) on 11 May recommended the release of genetically modified (GM) mustard hybrid DMH-11 for cultivation by farmers, those opposing GM crop technology are quaking in anger.

Though oil and oilcake derived from the seeds of Bt cotton, genetically modified for resistance to bollworms, are widely consumed in India, it is primarily regarded as a fibre crop. If the Environment Ministry accepts the GEAC’s advice, GM mustard would be the first food crop to be permitted for cultivation in India and the second GM crop to be approved after Bt cotton in 2002. The anti-GM activists fear it will unclog the pipeline for other releases. So, they are throwing everything into the battle.

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Opposition to GM Mustard

On 15 May, Kavita Kuruganti, a relentless fighter, made a Facebook appeal to “Act Now, Call PMO to Save Our Food, Farms & Farmers.” The office numbers of the private, principal and additional secretaries to the Prime Minister were appended for callers to register their opposition. There was urgency to the appeal because:

There is reliable information that the MOEFCC (that is, the late Anil Madhav Dave) would approve GM mustard for commercial cultivation today.

Devinder Sharma, another anti-GM activist, tweeted that GEAC’s approval is based on a “farrago of distortions, misrepresentations”.

Ashwani Mahajan, National Co-convenor of the RSS-affiliate, Swadeshi Jagran Manch, which organised a seminar against GM mustard in Delhi last September, tweeted that GM mustard will destroy India’s bio-diversity, cause contamination and increase dependence on patented products without any productivity gains.

The Supporting Cam

Among the supporters, the South Asia Biotechnology Centre has asked Indian scientists to write to the Environment Minister expressing support. Bharat Char, Technology Lead at Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco), the company that licenses Bt cotton traits through a joint venture with Monsanto, and the developer of Bt brinjal, has tweeted that GM mustard is an option to increase productivity; activists must open their minds and let farmers decide.

The GEAC met eight times on GM mustard since the application was submitted in September 2015. A 3,285-page bio-safety dossier was also appended. This dossier was summarised into 130 pages and placed on the environment ministry’s website for a month last September. Of the little over 700 comments received, 400 were found to be of some scientific value. After studying the dossier and examining the comments, a GEAC sub-committee report said that GM mustard passed the test for toxicity. It does not give rise to new allergies.

Though the “bar” gene has been inserted for herbicide tolerance, spraying of herbicide is not recommended. It is not harmful to honeybees and pollinators because it is similar to conventional mustard.

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Government is Sensitive

GEAC Chairperson Amita Prasad said 21 of 26 members were present when the decision was taken. The recommendation is initially for four years with a condition for post-release monitoring. “No government will put its people to risk,” Prasad said.

The widely cultivated GM crops worldwide have insect-resistance and herbicide-tolerance traits that increase yields tangentially ─ by saving crops from pests and weeds ─ not directly.

But GM mustard uses barnase-barstar genes obtained from soil bacteria for hybrid vigour. Mustard is largely self-pollinating. To create hybrids, one of the parents must be made male sterile so that it can accept the pollen of another parent, after which fertility must be restored so that the seeds are not sterile. This is done with the help of the two transgenes. The herbicide tolerant “bar” gene has been added to distinguish GM mustard plants from those that are not (the latter will die when sprayed with the herbicide glufosinate).

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Hybrid Development

There is another technique called the cytoplasmic male sterility method, but it is less efficient and more time consuming. Rasi Seeds is offering a mustard hybrid based on this method for planting during the coming winter or rabi season.

“Barnase-barstar system enables perfect hybrid development,” said KV Prabhu, Joint Director (Research) at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI). An accomplished plant breeder, Prabhu has been associated with the development of 23 varieties of rice, wheat, mustard and barley, including popular ones like Pusa Basmati 1121 and 1509 and the wheat variety, HD 3086. Prabhu said DMH-11’s “safety issues have been perfectly taken care of”.

Prabhu was not overly concerned about the yield of DMH-11. Even if it was not as high as claimed, better parental lines can be crossed for superior yield. That can happen once the transgenic method of creating mustard hybrids is approved.

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Let Farmers Decide

Rather than blocking the technology, the anti-GM activists must let DMH-11 prove itself on the fields. They are the best judges. They may be fooled once, but not repeatedly.

There is broad support for GM mustard which has been developed by a team of Delhi University scientists, led by its former vice-chancellor, the geneticist Deepak Pental. NITI Aayog has said GM crops are necessary to feed and clothe a growing population and cope with climate change. The 2016 Economic Survey said GM technology has “significant net benefits”.

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PMO Interest

The PMO has taken a keen interest, which is why the anti-activists are targeting it. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not been vocal, but he discreetly said in June 2015 that the technology is necessary. At least seven newspapers have supported GM mustard in their editorials.

Though Dave had previously made ambiguous statements, he told the Lok Sabha last November:

All public health-related issues have been adequately addressed for GM mustard through the regulatory pipeline process as per the rules.

When activists sought a stay on the release of GM mustard from the Supreme Court, the Environment Ministry filed a strong affidavit. It asked the court to dismiss the activists’ petition with “exemplary costs”. They were “strongly motivated ideologically”, it said, and wanted to “derail and hijack” the regulatory process.

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Supreme Court’s Permission

The Supreme Court has stayed commercial release of GM mustard till October. Once it is approved, the Ministry will have to obtain the court’s permission, which it might not decline as the approval is a policy issue.

The fear of the anti-activists is well-founded. If GM mustard is approved for cultivation, other GM crops will follow. IARI is using GM technology for 13 priority crops.

“For brown plant hopper and yellow stem borer in paddy; spot blotch in wheat; and pod borer in chick pea (chana) and pigeon pea (tur), we have no option but to look for this,” Prabhu said. “In brinjal, for fruit and stem borer we have no resistance in any of the natively evolved materials available in the country,” he added.
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(Vivian Fernandes is editor of www.smartindianagriculture.in. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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