Environment minister Harsh Vardhan has said that he needs to study the issues relating to GM mustard before taking a decision on its commercial use— the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) gave its approval on May 11 — but his ministry is, once again, indicating the decision might be in the affirmative. A day after the GEAC approval, the ministry had issued a set of frequently asked questions (FAQs) that were supportive of GM, but these were withdrawn within a day.
With Vardhan taking over after the death of Anil Madhav Dave, the ministry has once again reissued the FAQs — when these were originally withdrawn, the ministry said this was due to some typos and incorrect statements.
After talking of the sources of funding for the GM mustard (developed by Delhi University scientists) cleared by GEAC — Department of Biotechnology and the National Dairy Development Board — the FAQs list the public sector institutions involved in the safety studies; talking of public sector funding and institutions gives the impression the work is more kosher than a purely private initiative. The public sector institutions that conducted the safety studies include ICAR—Directorate of Rapeseed Mustard Research in Bharatpur, ICMR’s National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad and CSIR’s Institute of Microbial Technology in Chandigarh.
Are GM foods safe, one of the FAQs asks. Yes, is the reply, “GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health”. No, says the reply to another FAQ, “there is no evidence that the transgenes could be transferred to humans or animals through consumption of GE food”.
The reassurances continue— the introduced proteins do not have any toxicity, the seeds of this GE mustard are as safe for consumption as any other conventionally grown mustard, these proteins would not alter anyone’s genome after consumption of this GE mustard, no toxic effects were observed on reproductive organs of rats, is not anticipated to have any effect on milk production if cattle consume this GE mustard as feed, it won’t cut dropsy or any other diseases.
If the GE mustard variety gets a nod from the environment ministry, it will be the first GM food crop to be approved in India for commercial cultivation and consumption. While Bt cotton has been cultivated in the country since 2002, Bt brinjal, the first GM food crop approved by the GEAC, never hit the fields as an indefinite moratorium was imposed on its commercial release in early 2010 by then environment minister Jairam Ramesh.
A nod, though, will not be the end of the GM sector’s woes since, in the case of Bt Cotton, the government not only came out with a price control order to fix the royalty on Monsanto’s product, it even tried—but later withdrew—to put a cap on royalty. If this can be done to Bt Cotton, there is no reason why it cannot be done to other GM crops, particularly those developed by commercial organisations.
Also, in the Bt Cotton case, though the government is not a party to a court case between Monsanto and one of its licensees, the government has said the Indian Patents Act does not allow patenting of seeds, plants and their varieties. By doing so, it has sought to argue, Monsanto could not have got a patent from the Patent Office. It has then said that, even if there is a patent given, under the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act (PPVFR), once a gene is inserted into the seed, it is a ‘variety’ and hence not patentable. That is, even if a patent is valid, it becomes invalid the moment the gene is put into a seed and cross-pollinated to create new hybrids.
Under the PPVFR, a firm like Monsanto can still try to get returns for its investment. This will, however, not be in the form of royalty or trait fees but will be in the form of ‘benefit sharing’. Unlike royalties which are decided by GM firms like Monsanto, ‘benefit sharing’ is decided by the PPVFR Authority.
None of these issues affects the GM mustard being discussed since it was created using public money, but private developers of GM crops will worry if the government seeks to negate their patent rights and says royalties will not be allowed, and that ‘benefit sharing’ will be decided by the PPVFR Authority.