Explainer: What the fight over GM Mustard is all about

Those opposing the introduction of GM Mustard say it is an "unwanted and irreversible" technology.
Explainer: What the fight over GM Mustard is all about
Explainer: What the fight over GM Mustard is all about
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Several groups of environmentalists, farmers, beekeepers and NGOs have been protesting against the possibility of the government's approval for commercial cultivation of genetically-modified (GM) Mustard in India. 

What is DMH-11?

Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 or DMH-11 is a genetically modified variety of mustard developed by the Delhi University's Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants. 

If approved by the Centre, this will be the second GM crop, after Bt Cotton, and the first transgenic food crop to be allowed for cultivation in the country. 

The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the regulator under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF) that can clear the GM mustard for commercial use in India, has sought public comments- that can be submitted till October 5- on safety aspects of the DMH-11 mustard variety. 

The sub-committee in its report gave a green signal to GM Mustard stating that the technology is safe for consumption and environment.

The ministry has put the sub-committee's 133-page "Assessment of Food and Environmental Safety of GE mustard" (AFES) online.

Concerns and counter

Those anti-GM crops allege that the commercialisation of GM Mustard will only work for increasing seed sales and ensuring profits for multinationals who'd eventually control India's agriculture.   

"It is an unneeded and irreversible technology, like the situation in which cotton is stuck today," says Ananthoo, a coordinator of Safe Food Alliance (SFA), an organisation that has been protesting against the possible introduction of DMH-11. 

It was in 2002 that Bt cotton, a non-food crop, was introduced in India by Monsato- the first genetically modified crop to be approved for cultivation in the country. The "success" of this variety is often quoted by proponents of GM Mustard. 

Noted molecular biologist Pushpa M. Bhargava too has opposed the GM mustard saying such a move could prove to be "disastrous". 

Stating that the success of Bt cotton is "overemphasised", the bio-technologist and Padma awardee in a piece for The Hindu wrote "Today, there is substantially large and incontrovertible evidence that genetically modified crops are harmful to human and animal health, environment and biodiversity. The commonly used Bt gene when put into cotton or brinjal plant leads to a deleterious effect on growth and development of the plant. GM food has been shown to even cause cancer in rodents."

Ananthoo goes on to state that many farmer unions and seed companies have accepted the failure of Bt cotton and states like Punjab and Maharashtra had even advised farmers to stick to growing native cotton varieties. “But where are they now?” he asks.

Those supporting GM Mustard claim that its introduction will increase yields and help lessen India's dependence on the rising imports of edible oil. 

India is the world’s second largest consumer of edible oil after China, and 14.5-15.5 million tonnes of the total 20-21 mt annual consumption is imported. 

Ananthoo calls the claims about increased yield "laughable".

"Firstly, for their research they compared the GM seeds with 40-year-old natural variety of seeds instead of recent ones. It is like to prove that I am 4ft tall, I stand next to a 3 year old. Secondly, for 25% increase in yield in any crop, there are hundreds of traditional methods. Thirdly, the high imports have a lot to do with foolish policies and mindless parameters twisted and tweaked in the name of trade," he says.  

Safe Food Alliance Chennai/Facebook

Herbicide tolerant variety and impact on honey bees

Rajesh Krishnan, co-convener for Coalition for a GM-Free India, like several other activists, alleges that developers of GM Mustard intentionally concealed that DMH-11 is an herbicide resistant variety until recently and revealed it only after continuous pressure and opposition.  

Herbicides are chemicals used to kill weeds. According to Rajesh, herbicide tolerant plants will lead to an increased use of toxic chemicals on plants. This in turn will adversely affect human and animal health as well as the environment. Also, this is a sign that the industry wants to move to the agrochemicals market. 

"It is a serious concern," Rajesh, who is also a farmer, says. "Till now in India, we mostly use manual weeding. New crops are now being developed with the market plan in mind."

There are several socio-economic impacts of introducing an herbicide tolerant crop variety. A significant portion of the unorganised sector in India, especially rural women, is involved in manual weeding. 

"On one hand we have the NREGA to increase employment, and then we push technology that will take away jobs," he adds. 

Nearly 50-60 % of the honey produced in India is through mustard crop and the GM crop is also facing resistance from honey makers in India, who state that the technology will harm honey bees.

Contradicting it, research organisation like South Asia Biotechnology Centre have said that GM mustard "bolsters honey bee population" and the "myths" associated with GM crops are nothing but fear-mongering.

Role of multinationals

Even though the applicant on paper is Delhi University, Ananthoo alleges it is just a "projection" and that the varsity is being backed by German conglomerate Bayer. 

The multinational too had tried for the approval of GM Mustard in India earlier and Ananthoo says it had the same properties- male sterility and herbicide resistant- as the one developed by researchers at DU. 

In January 2016, the SC sought a response from the government regarding a contempt petition filed against members of GEAC for allegedly allowing field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops in violation of the court’s earlier orders

Aruna Rodrigues in the petition also makes the mention of Bayer. 

"In 2002 Proagro Seed Company (now Bayer), applied for commercial approval for exactly the same construct that Prof Pental and his team are now promoting as HT Mustard DMH 11. The reason today matches Bayer’s claim then of 20% better yield increase (than conventional mustard). Bayer was turned down because the ICAR said that their field trials did not give evidence of superior yield," her petition states

Ananthoo alleges that not only is DU backed by the industry, the patent will ultimately be held by Bayer. "DU won't be the seed manufacturer after-all. It will be a private subsidiary."

Lack of transparency and “farcical feedback process”

Activists allege that the research has been conducted without adequate safety assessment and in a non-transparent way. The government too, they say, has made the process for reviewing the data challenging. 

The report available online is just the summary and the raw data is available with the MoEF in Delhi. It can only be accessed after prior application in New Delhi.

"So we need to apply, get permission, clear security, mug up the 4,000 pages of notes and later recall it. How many people can go to Delhi to go through the papers? And they have given us a month to respond," Ananthoo says. 

Agriculture is a state subject

There's also the issue of constitutional rights, Rajesh states. "Agriculture falls under the jurisdiction of the state. But the Centre is taking such a major decision even though several states are opposing it," he says. 

(With angency inputs)

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