Now that the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Commitee (GEAC) has recommended release of the genetically-modified Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11) for cultivation by farmers, there is pressure from anti-GM activists on environment minister Anil Madhav Dave not to accept the recommendation. If he gives in, he would be emulating Jairam Ramesh who, in 2010 as environment minister, not only rejected the GEAC’s advice to release fruit-and-shoot-borer-resistant Bt brinjal but also re-designated the GEAC from an “approval” committee to an “appraisal committee.” B Sesikaran recalls Ramesh telling him something to the effect that “you have made a technical presentation, now let me take a political decision.” This after Sesikaran apprised the minister of the safety aspects of Bt brinjal, as director of Hyderabad’s National Institute of Nutrition. He is now chairman of the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation and a member of the GEAC.
Dave seems to be treading cautiously. A day after GEAC gave its approval, a press statement explaining the reasons was supposed to be released. It was held back for discussions. FAQs on GM mustard posted prominently on the environment ministry’s website disappeared after a few hours. An official explained they would be re-uploaded after corrections.
GEAC’s approval has provided tinder for a Twitter blaze. Ashwani Mahajan, National Co-convenor of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch predicts disaster if GM mustard is cultivated on a large scale. It “would destroy biodiversity, cause contamination increased (sic) dependence on patented products without any productivity gain.” Mahajan had organized a seminar in Delhi against GM mustard last September “Shamelessly unscientific & irresponsible. GEAC clears HT (herbicide tolerant) mustard.
V condemn this & Urge minister to be responsible,” says Kavitha Kuruganti, a relentless anti-GM activist on Twitter. Devinder Sharma says the approval is based on a “Farrago of Distortions, Misrepresentations,” borrowing a phrase made popular recently by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor while denouncing a TV anchor. Among the supporters on Twitter is Bharat Char, Technology Lead at Mahrashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco), which sells bollworm-resistant Bt cottonseeds, and also licenses the patented trait to seed companies in India through a joint venture with Monsanto.
GM mustard is “an option to increase productivity, he tweets, and asks activists to have an open mind and let farmers decide. Approval of the hybrid would be an opportunity to catch on a technology where India lags, he adds. Ram Kaundinya, former CEO of Advanta, an Indian seeds company, and also former head of ABLE-AG, a lobby group of agricultural biotechnology companies tells the activists to “follow scientists and scientific assessments. Not rumours and mischief mongers.” He also questions the financial and intellectual integrity of some of the activists.
Dave may have made up his mind. “All public health-related issues have been adequately addressed for GM mustard, through the regulatory pipeline process as per the rules,” the minister had told the Lok Sabha last November. When activists sought a stay on the release of GM mustard, Dave’s ministry filed a strong affidavit. The environment ministry 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.
The GEAC had met eight times on GM mustard since an application for release was filed by a team of Delhi University scientists, led by its former vice-chancellor, the geneticist Deepak Pental, in September 2015. A sub-committee of the GEAC studied the 3,285 page bio-safety dossier appended to the application, and about 400 of 700 substantial public comments on a 130-page summary posted on the ministry’s website. GEAC chairman, Amita Prasad said the committee found DMH-11 pass the tests for toxicity.
It is not expected to harm honeybees or pollinators nor create fresh allergies. Though the hybrid is tolerant to the herbicide glufosinate, spraying of the herbicide is neither necessary nor recommended. Prasad said 21 of 26 GEAC members were present. The safety aspects were discussed thoroughly for about an hour and a decision to recommend release was made. “No government will put its people to risk,” said Prasad. The recommendation is initially for four years. A condition for post-release monitoring has been imposed.
Even if Dave gives his approval, DMH-11 cannot be released without the Supreme Court’s approval. Last October, the court had stayed its release for one year and the government has given an undertaking that prior permission will be taken. That should still enable seed production as mustard is a winter or rabi crop. If GM mustard is released, India’s agribiotechnology industry will get a boost. No new GM crop has been allowed for cultivation after Bt cotton in 2002. Regulatory hurdles have forced BASF, Bayer Crop Science, Dupont and Advanta to shut or downsize their agri-biotechnology research programmes in India.
Even if the cultivation of GM mustard is allowed, private industry will want reassurance on protection of intellectual property rights. The agriculture ministry’s price control order of last year slashing fees payable for patented genetically-modified bollworm-resistant traits in cotton have had a chilling effect. The ministry seems to be privileging breeders’ rights over those of patent holders. Some prominent seed companies believe GM traits must be regarded as standard essential patents (SEPs) and regulated like highway tolls.
They question the patentability of GM traits in India. Traits fuse with plants and plants cannot be patented, they say. The validity of these arguments will be decided by courts but the prospect of prolonged litigation, aided by an unhelpful government, are uncertainties that businesses do not like. But the GM plant programmes of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and state agricultural universities which are publicly funded will get a definite boost from the release of GM mustard.