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The approval to the genetically-modified seed is shrouded in secrecy while ecological and societal risks are too high to ignore. GM Mustard may soon become India’s first genetically modified (GM) food crop. On May 11, 2017, the environment ministry's genetic engineering approval committee (GEAC) had recommended the commercial use of GM Mustard seed, DMH 11, developed by Delhi University.

While GM crops are grown in a few countries, including Canada and the US, many more have rejected or are undecided because of the possible health and ecological risks linked to this technology. In India, the issue gains more complexity as agriculture here is known to involve millions of farmers with small but independent landholdings. Introduction of GM seeds, as was seen in the context of Bt Cotton, leads to monocropping and the monopolistic control of these farms by big corporates.

Currently, Rapeseed-Mustard, also known colloquially as Rai, Sarson, Toria, Taramira etc., is grown on around 5.5 to 7 million hectares in India during the rabi (winter) season. Listed below are the key issues related to GM Mustard that environmentalists and food policy experts have been flagging for quite long.

Lack of transparency

The key accusation against developers and regulators is that they have kept the scientific data related to the trials secretive. This continues to be the case despite the directions of the Supreme Court and Central Information Commission to put out data for public scrutiny. “People should know the procedural aspects of field trials and stages through which GM Mustard has come for approval,” says Abhishek Joshi, a policy analyst associated with anti-GM campaign, Sarson Satyagraha.

Activists also assert that the yield of GM Mustard was compared with that of old low-yielding varieties to make it look good. Developers claim around 25-30 percent higher yield with GM Mustard but there are already non-GM hybrid seeds in the market which give better yield.

Impact on diversity

Indian Mustard has more than 65 different varieties. Source: Abhijit Kar Gupta/ WikicommonsIndia has rich genetic heritage of mustard diversity and is also the centre of origin for the crop. Several experts have voiced their concern that contamination from GM Mustard will destroy this heritage and introduce monocultures. This was one of the main reasons for government’s moratorium on Bt Brinjal, another GM food crop, in 2010 because India has a vast genetic diversity of brinjal as well. “Numerous independent studies, a Technical Expert Committee (TEC) of scientists, appointed by the Supreme Court and Standing Parliamentary Committee have expressly recommended against the introduction of GM seeds specifically for those crops with centres of diversity and/or origin in India. Indian Mustard (from Rape Seed Mustard Family) has more than 65 different varieties and indeed has the centre of diversity and possibly the centre of origin in India,” says Joshi.

The new GM seed is also herbicide-tolerant which means it can withstand the chemical used to kill weeds. Many farmers cultivate mustard with other crops. Use of herbicide would effectively lead to the monocropping of GM Mustard as other crops won’t be able to withstand the chemical.

More yield is not equal to more income for farmersThe yield of rapeseed-mustard has been increasing all across India even though a drop in the coverage area was seen between 2006-07 to 2012-13. The production in 2016-17 was estimated at 8 million tonnes. This year, the Union Cabinet approved the minimum support price (MSP) of Rs 3,700, including Rs 350 per quintal bonus hike, but it did not reach the farmers as procurement agencies did not pick the crop, resulting in distress sale. There are total 293 markets in India where mustard is sold at below MSP which includes 93 markets in Rajasthan, 72 in Madhya Pradesh, 63 markets in Uttar Pradesh, 32 in Gujarat, and 14 in Haryana.

So, even if GM Mustard increases the yield, the market will continue to cheat the farmers of a fair price.

Import bill not due to poor production but lower dutiesThe plea that India needs to produce more mustard to reduce import bill on edible oils is also flawed. Food policy expert, Devinder Sharma, says that the import bill has risen to Rs 60,000 crore because India reduced import duties, allowing cheaper oils from other countries to flow in. “When Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister he launched a Technology Mission in Oilseeds in 1985. In less than ten years, we doubled the oilseeds production from 11 million tonnes in 1986-87, to 22 million tonnes in 1993-94. The imports reduced to only three percent of the requirement, but a few years later, we began lowering the import duties. The more the edible oil imports, the more the domestic processing industry pulled down the shutters. So, if we increase the duties again, the import bill will reduce and our farmers will get a good price for their crops as well,” he adds.

More GM food crops to followSince GM Mustard DMH 11 has been developed by Delhi University, it is seen as more benign than seeds pushed by corporates. But with the approval to GM Mustard, India will open the door for other GM food crops waiting in line. “There are more than 100 GM food crops waiting to enter India. According to the guidelines of World Trade Organisation, you can’t have rules for private companies which are stricter than those for public institutions like Delhi University. This means several GM seeds of wheat, rice and other food crops will get approval, putting our health and environment at risk,” says Prof Rajinder Chaudhary, adviser to Kudrati Kheti Abhiyan, a campaign for organic farming in Haryana.

With such serious concerns over validity and need for GM Mustard, the approvals are unwarranted.

GM Crops and India 

Currently only BT Cotton is used in India. Corn, soya, wheat, brinjal, okra, potatoes and sorghum are at different stages of testing. Wani thinks that India, a developing nation, must adopt GM Foods to end hunger issues. “This technology supports the growth of needed crops and provides our country with the opportunity to feed the citizens while bolstering its economy,” says Wani.

On the other hand, the anti-GM Foods rally cites several reasons to avoid GM Foods. These include drastic reduction of India’s bio diversity, corporatisation of farming and the resultant social and political consequences.

A case in point is BT Cotton, introduced in India 20 years ago. It wiped out our indigenous cotton seed varieties, estimated at 4,000 to 5,000, leading to massive rejections in organic cotton export. In 2008, two certification agencies had their accreditation suspended with Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) for failing to detect BT Cotton contamination in organic cotton as genetic engineering isn’t allowed in organic cultivation, says Shamika Mone of the Organic Farming Association of India.

“An agrarian country like India depends on its biodiversity. If one fails, another works. But (a) GM crop wipes out the biodiversity,” says Radhakrishnan. In 2016, an uncontrollable pest outburst worsened the agrarian situation in the cotton-growing belt, even leading to farmer suicides, he adds.

Corporatisation 

GM seeds are produced by MNCs and big corporates. Farmers who traditionally conserved their own seeds and did so for free, will be forced to buy seeds from corporates at higher royalty prices and indirectly the entire nation will be at the mercy of the corporates to meet its food demands, Radhakrishnan points out.

Lack of scientific study and research

Those in favour of GM foods say that no study or research has found any safety hazards (posed by GM food) while those who oppose it, say the lack of adequate research on its safety, is a concern. “There’s no good evidence that the GM foods in the market are any less safe than regular foods. At this point, billions of people across the globe have been eating GM foods for years without any visible ill effects. When it comes to food safety, several research studies have concluded that the GM foods currently available in market pose no more of a health risk than conventional foods,” says Wani.

Radhakrishnan counters this with: “Hardly any tests prove that GM foods are absolutely safe both in the short and the long run. Basically there are lots of doubts and concerns over it, and it shouldn’t be adopted."

It’s been noted that several tests required to assess the risks and impacts of GM Mustard have not been implemented. The test results seem to indicate something else while the conclusion drawn is different. “In some cases, the data presented is unbelievable from an ecological viewpoint. The little analysis possible by independent experts, based on limited access to information, clearly shows that testing of GM mustard has been deliberately misleading, unscientific, inadequate and unreliable,” says Mone.

GM Food in other countries 

Among the biggest adopters of GM foods is the US; food labels do not indicate whether a food is GM or non-GM.
Menwhile, 38 countries have banned GM foods — including Russia, Germany, Scotland, Netherlands, Bhutan, Italy, Norway and Switzerland, among others.