Why GM mustard may not see the light of day

On May 11, last year, the GEAC, the apex authority for assessing the safety of genetically modified (GM) crops, declared that GM mustard had passed the prescribed tests and recommended to the environment minister that he should approve it.

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A sub-committee of the GEAC had studied the 3,285-page bio-safety dossier they had furnished. (PTI)

On May 11, last year, the GEAC, the apex authority for assessing the safety of genetically modified (GM) crops, declared that GM mustard had passed the prescribed tests and recommended to the environment minister that he should approve it. Five months later, on October 10, 2017, the environment secretary noted that minister Harsh Vardhan wanted the case referred back to the GEAC in light of petitions and representations he had received. Science & technology minister Harsh Vardhan was given the additional charge of the environment portfolio on May 23, following the death of minister of state Anil Madhav Dave five days before. In September, he was made the cabinet minister for environment as well. The GEAC had met eight times on GM mustard since an application for environmental or commercial release was made in September 2015 by a team of scientists of the Delhi University, led by its former vice-chancellor, Deepak Pental. A sub-committee of the GEAC had studied the 3,285-page bio-safety dossier they had furnished. It had received 700 public comments on a 130-page summary of the dossier posted on the ministry’s website. Four hundred of these were considered as they were found to be substantial.

Amita Prasad, the previous chairman of the GEAC, said in the committee’s view, the hybrid, DMH-11, had passed the tests for toxicity and allergenicity. Though the hybrid was tolerant to glufosinate, spraying of the herbicide was neither necessary nor recommended. Prasad said all 21 of 26 GEAC members present at the meeting had given their assent. “No government will put its people to risk,” Prasad had said. The recommendation was initially for four years. A condition for the post-release monitoring was imposed.

The Centre’s nod seemed imminent. In a FB post, Kavita Kuruganti, an unrelenting opponent, had asked anti-GM activists to call the PM’s secretaries to register their protest. She even provided their landline numbers. It seemed like a last gasp at stalling the release of GM mustard. Then Harsh Vardhan happened.

In response to an RTI application, the environment ministry furnished photocopies of 11 documents, which Vardhan received post the GEAC’s decision. R Chidambaram, principal scientific advisor to the government in a letter to the minister, vouched for the professional credentials of Pental and said the hybrid he had developed “can be taken up for commercial cultivation this season beginning September 2017, after your approval.” India was not making a leap of faith, he said. Canada and Australia were cultivating GM rapeseed, a relative of mustard, for 20 and 15 years, respectively, and India was consuming their exports. He sent a resolution of the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) supporting the commercialisation of GM mustard and noted that “Dr Panjab Singh, President NAAS, has also written to you in this context.”

Singh had sent Vardhan a copy of his letter to the PM (but it was not among the documents given in response to the RTI request). Singh noted that the “process of evaluation of breakthrough GM technologies would not have restarted without your (PM’s) positive directions.” Ever since then, he said, “hard-core GM technology bashers have been very active in spreading lies and fears on GM crops – particularly mustard.” Analysis by NAAS colleagues had found their arguments to be “fallacious, mischievous and motivated”. The report, “Falsehoods perpetrated by GM technology bashers on GM mustard,” had been put on the NAAS website. Singh appended the report to the letter. Delay in the release of GM mustard, Singh told the PM “will only complicate the case in the SC which is actively seeking government’s decision on recommendations of GEAC.” It will also lead to loss of the 2017-18 mustard-growing season, and “embolden GM bashers to spread fear and confusion… seriously jeopardising our scientific progress and competency in the field.”

R S Paroda, former DG of the ICAR wrote to environment secretary AN Jha that after the clearance by the GEAC, “it is now logically expected that a final nod of the government would be accorded.” Paroda was a member of the SC’s technical expert panel on GM crops. He said “some sections of the society, not the farmers, are trying to prevent the release of GM mustard on scientifically unfounded grounds, totally untenable and unjustified.” Former agricultural commissioner Charudatta Mayee also urged approval so that “20 years of painstaking research” was not lost.

But the minister listened to the naysayers. Among these was DMK President, M K Stalin, who is the leader of Opposition in the Tamil Nadu Assembly. Stalin said “lakhs of farmers and people of Tamil Nadu” were disappointed even though the state does not grow mustard.

GM crops, he says, are “detrimental” to the interests of farmers and “have not been allowed in Tamil Nadu more particularly in many states in the country.” This is not true. Though the state is not a major producer of cotton, much of its cotton area is of the GM variety. Salem’s Rasi Seeds produces Bt cottonseed in the state and has a sizeable market share. “Powerful pesticides are used to safeguard GM crops,” Stalin said, when in fact, insecticidal transgenic genes embedded in the DNA of GM crops obviate or minimise pesticide usage.

The minister was also persuaded by a representation from the Southern Action on Genetic Engineering. Its letter of May 23 expresses opposition to GM sorghum developed by the Indian Institute of Millet Research. In only one paragraph is food processing minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal’s statement disapproving GM mustard noted to urge a similar “unequivocal stand” against GM sorghum!

The minister’s office had also on its own taken note of the two newspaper articles, both of them opposed to GM mustard. One was an opinion piece by Prabhakar Nair, former professor, the National Science Foundation, in the New Indian Express. Another is a report in The Hindu of a protest in Chennai. The only person quoted in the report, Sultan Ahmed Ismail of the Ecoscience Research Foundation, says the GM mustard hybrid is not even a hybrid!

A representation by Sampat Kumar, former vice-chancellor of the Gujarat Vidyapeeth, endorsed by 16 academics and writers, doubts DMH-11’s claim to safety, higher yield and superior hybridisation technology. Its tolerance to herbicide will result in loss of weeding jobs, the letter says. Kumar is unaware that farmers have planted large tracts with unapproved herbicide-tolerant cotton, as labour for weeding is either not available when needed, or unaffordable to them. Organic farming, he says, will be jeopardised, but that can happen when pesticides are sprayed on non-transgenic mustard as well. It recommends system of mustard intensification (SMI) as an agronomic practice to boost yield. But the NAAS has dismissed the yield claims made for SMI as “nothing short of a miracle” and “not authentic.”

MS Swaminathan, who is credited with India’s Green Revolution, has in a dog whistle email to the minister on July 22 drawn attention to a 2004 report of the task force on agri-biotechnology. He wants a Parliament-approved regulatory body for GM crops, suggesting that the present system is inadequate. But the NAAS has observed that it “is one of the most robust regulatory systems in the world to address the biosafety and environmental concerns.”

Swaminathan has been waffling on GM technology, unlike Norman Borlaugh, the Father of the Green Revolution, who was an ardent supporter. But at a roundtable in February 2014 under Swaminathan’s chairmanship, the NAAS resolved that “genetic modification of crops is a promising, relevant and efficient technology for low-input, high-output agriculture where conventional breeding tools have not been effective.” Swaminathan’s foundation is itself using GM technology to develop salt-tolerant varieties of rice.

The minister also took note of rebuttals of the environment ministry’s answers to FAQs on GM mustard by the coalition for a GM-free India. These are rants against “incorrect, false and partial statements” by the environment ministry “to befool people” on GM mustard and “cover up their unscientific work.” The activists were heard at length by the GEAC; they keep repeating their charges.

Did the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, an affiliate of the RSS, of which Vardhan is a member, weigh in? The SJM has been opposing GM crop technology. According to an RTI response, the minister did not receive any representation from it. The chances of GM mustard getting into farmers’ fields seem bleak. The GEAC has not met since last May.

Vardhan is not always as cautious. He notified rules prohibiting trading of cattle for slaughter on the very day he took charge of the environment ministry. The rules were stayed by the Madras HC and the stay was extended to the whole country by the SC. If not, they would have led to widespread loss of livelihoods and damaged the rural economy.

The author is editor of Views are personal

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First published on: 01-02-2018 at 05:13 IST