As of now, the introduction of GM Mustard has been put on hold. The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) which was supposed to take a decision on whether or not to commercialize genetically modified (GM) mustard has failed to decide, in the face of opposition from many quarters, including former health minister Dr Ambumani Ramadoss.
Earlier, a moratorium was put on GM Brinjal in 2010. Developed by Delhi University’s Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGCMP), GM mustard or Dhara Mustard Hybrid 11(DH-11) is claimed to give a 20 to 30 per cent higher yield than normal mustard varieties.
Bt cotton was the first GM crop to be introduced in India. But notwithstanding claims of boll-worm resistance and higher yield, Bt cotton has found to fall short of expectations. In fact, the initial high yield could not be sustained in later years, and while it was found to be resistant to boll-worm, it could not provide resistance to other pests. Thus, more pesticides required to be used by farmers, hiking the cost of production, and pushing farmers into debt.
GM crops are even otherwise, subject to many controversies. Dr Vandana Shiva, one of the most outspoken critics of GM crops, has been stridently questioning the claims of high yield and pest resistance that are the major arguments presented in favour of this technology.
The most important question is that of bio-safety where GM crops are concerned. Transgenic crops are required to be planted away from other crops in keeping with biosafety regulations. However, these rules were violated at the time of clinical trials conducted for Bt cotton. Subsequent exploitation of farmers, and the infertility of GM seeds have also been major issues, since GM seeds can never be stored or re-used. Farmers, hence, need to buy these every year. Such as system benefits the seed manufacturers and strengthens their monopoly, to the detriment of the farmer.
Since labeling is not a common feature in India-unlike abroad, GM crops like Bt cotton have ended up being sold in the open market, alongside traditional cotton. At a time when India is grappling with a cancer epidemic due to uncontrolled use of pesticides, especially in states like Punjab, the high risks involved with a hybrid crop that will need high pesticide inputs has made most Indians resistant to GM crops.
Lack of transparency and the reluctance of companies to make the results of field trials available in the public domain is another major factor that has gone against the introduction of GM crops. The opaqueness of regulators of not placing the biosafety data in the public domain, despite a Supreme Court Order to the contrary, was recently cited by DrRamadoss, who has called on the government to reconsider the introduction of GM crops.
Another argument put forth is that many times people don’t know which genes are being inserted in the crop.GMO labeling is an important aspect, which needs to be addressed.GM plants can also lead to ‘super resistant weeds’.Since certain GM plants might be resistant to herbicides this can lead to weeds becoming resistant through natural selection.Agri-scientists fear that GM crops may interact with wild varieties of plants and form ‘hybrid plants’, resulting in the loss of wild varieties and precious biodiversity.
Dr. Deepak Pental, Professor of Genetics and the Ex Vice Chancellor of Delhi University and the developer of GM mustard claims, “Tests were mostly carried out in Western India and the mustard should be grown where it is most adapted to”. “Also, no adverse effect on pollinators such as bees, birds, has been found yet”, he cites. On being asked as to why the biosafety data was not being released, he said, “…the data has to go first to the GEAC who will then present their findings to the statutory body. You can also file a RTI to get information about the biosafety trials.”
Critics of GM, such as Dr Shiva’s organization, Navdanya, remain extremely agitated about the biosafety factor. They point out, “GM mustard is unethical and may not meet Indian medical standards. Normal mustard is used in ayurveda and massage oils.Since there won’t be any labeling differentiating between GM and normal mustard, how will people be able to make a choice between the two?”
On claims of GM crops getting engineered to fight droughts,salinity and natural disasters, and giving high yields with low input, they point to how organic cultivation of wild cultivars can produce better results, and a healthier population.
On the other side, India will need to take a quick, and well-informed decision to ensure food security and ample yields for its ever-growing population in the face of climate change, dropping groundwater levels, and frequent natural disasters.