Opinion Columnists 20 Nov 2022 Suman Sahai | Slipsh ...
The writer, chairperson of Gene Campaign, is a scientist and development activist. She can be reached at mail@genecampaign.org.

Suman Sahai | Slipshod way of approvals for GM crops very alarming

Published Nov 21, 2022, 12:55 am IST
Updated Nov 21, 2022, 12:55 am IST
The GM Mustard hybrid DMH-11 has been projected as a high-yielding variety (Representational Image/ANI)
 The GM Mustard hybrid DMH-11 has been projected as a high-yielding variety (Representational Image/ANI)

There is a furore over the approval granted to India’s first food crop, GM Mustard (Brassica juncea). Activists, consumers, farmers and scientists have risen in protest against the government’s approval for the environmental release of a genetically engineered crop despite outstanding concerns.

The GM Mustard hybrid DMH-11 has been projected as a high-yielding variety that will increase the production of edible oil in the country and reduce our import bill. But this claim doesn’t appear to be substantiated by official data. Scientists of the government’s Directorate of Rapeseed-Mustard Research (DRMR) have said that there are mustard varieties in existence already that show substantially higher yield than the GM hybrid.

India is self-sufficient in mustard oil, meeting its requirement through domestic production, not imports. According to the data on import of edible oils, 2020- 2021, the maximum import of edible oils is that of palm oil (7491 MT), soyabean (2866 MT) and sunflower (1894 MT) oil, followed by palmolein (686 MT) and CPKO (Crude Palm Kernel Oil (143 MT).

Edible oil preferences are region-specific. Mustard oil is consumed largely in northern and eastern India. India produces enough to meet this need. Any surplus mustard oil would not fill the deficit, say in coconut oil in southern India or groundnut oil in western India. So the argument of needing GM Mustard to increase production of mustard oil through this GMO is hard to see.

What is of great concern though are violations in the regulatory process and exceptions made, leading up to the approval for environmental release of GM Mustard. Dr Pental, developer of the GM Mustard at the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP), applied to the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) in September 2015 for approval of environmental release of the GM hybrid DMH-11. After evaluating the data and the many comments received from different stakeholders, GEAC, gave directions to the CGMCP to conduct further studies to assess the impact of GM Mustard on honey bees and other pollinators as well as on soil health.

Thereafter follow strange and highly objectionable developments, Dr Pental wrote to the GEAC on May 10, 2022, asking for approval of GM mustard without conducting the tests directed by the GEAC. The GEAC referred this request to the department of biotechnology and department of agriculture research and education, both of who recommended that the developer may be exempted from conducting any of the required tests. Strangely, the GEAC went along with this breach in the regulatory process and gave approval to GM Mustard.

So, in a shocking violation of its own rules and guidelines, the Central government granted approval for the environmental release of GM Mustard on October 25. The required tests are now apparently to be conducted post environmental release of GM Mustard. This is a farce. The point of assessing such socio-economic impacts of a GMO before granting approval is to catch harmful impacts in time. Another problematic aspect of GM Mustard is the fact that it is essentially a Herbicide Tolerant (HT) crop. This fact was pushed under the carpet, highlighting instead a supposed yield advantage. The government’s defence is strange, saying since this HT GM Mustard is not labelled as an HT crop for commercial release, it can’t be called an HT crop even if it carries the HT trait! But the government has taken cognisance of the HT trait by proscribing herbicide use and threatening to penalise farmers if they do use herbicides with the HT GM Mustard! All this makes very curious reading.

The Gene Campaign’s 2004 PIL on GMOs, followed by another one by Rodriguez in 2005, led to the Supreme Court appointing a Technical Expert Committee (TEC) to provide recommendations in the matter of GM crops. The government has stated that all the recommendations of the TEC have been followed. This is clearly not the case as we see in the case of GM Mustard, which carries the HT trait.

On HT technology, the TEC recommends “in view of the concerns bearing on health, environmental and socioeconomic considerations, a moratorium on field trials of herbicide tolerant (HT) crops… until an independent committee comprising experts and stakeholders has examined and assessed the potential impact of HT technology and its suitability in the Indian context”.

Once GM Mustard is released into the environment and its impacts are felt, it will be too late to do anything or recall/reverse the damage. And it is almost certain that the Herbicide Tolerant (HT) trait will be passed on via pollinators to non-GM Mustard, thereby contaminating the gene pool of Brassica juncea, the special Indian mustard.

The HT trait is highly undesirable for Indian agriculture as we can see. The use of herbicide destroys all the vegetation in and around the field where the HT crop is cultivated. It therefore destroys the biodiversity that is used by the rural community in many ways.

In India, this biodiversity is not considered useless, as it is in the West. These so-called “weeds” provide leafy green vegetables and many kinds of saag like chaulai and bathua that provide valuable nutrition to poor rural families; they also provide green fodder for livestock kept by rural households. Such “weeds” are also the medicinal plants that traditional healers use in the treatment of human and animal diseases.

HT crops are clearly not in India’s interest. But what is truly alarming are the violations of the rules and this slipshod method of giving approval to the GM crops.

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