Stop GM mustard, or it will be too late

Published: Mon, 11/14/2016 - 10:22 Updated: Mon, 11/14/2016 - 10:40

Genetically modified sarson, developed by Delhi University scientists, is not quite the safe, high-yield manna for farmers the government is making it out to be 

Kavita Kuruganti Delhi

Six years after Bt brinjal, a genetically modified food crop, was put on an indefinite moratorium by the Government of India in February 2010, another transgenic food crop is creating a controversy. This time, it is a genetically modified mustard or sarson developed by a team of scientists in Delhi University and taxpayers’ funds of upto Rs 100 crore have been spent on its R&D and testing.

As the government is on the verge of approving what could be India’s first GM food crop, from a technology that found acceptance in only three countries around the world while most rapeseed-producing countries decided to remain GM-free, protests are building up across the country. A Sarson Satyagraha has been launched by many organizations, who have joined hands to ensure that GM mustard is not approved for commercial cultivation in India.

This GM mustard has been unnaturally created, using three bacterial genes through which pollination control is sought to be achieved. By using GE technology for preventing self-pollination (by making chosen mustard cultivars ‘male sterile’ through barnase gene introduction), the concept is to facilitate hybridisation and through that, the possibility of higher yields.

However, the claimed benefit of increased yield has not been verified and, from evidence available, the developers have deceptively and actively manipulated trials to make their GM mustard look superior.

What the Indian government has missed out improving in all these years of debate on GM crops in India is the building of credibility and citizens’ trust in the regulatory regime, by improving the risk assessment regime as well as by bringing in all required areas of expertise and without conflict of interest. What we need in the regulatory body are many biosafety science experts and not more crop developers. These issues are in fact the core of the Supreme Court cases expected to be heard soon. As pressure builds against the approval from all sides, in the last hearing on October 24, 2016, the Government of India assured the Bench that it would not approve GM mustard without the court’s nod. 

Apart from these procedural matters which question whether the core mandate of regulation (protection of citizens, their health and environment from the risks of modern biotechnology) is being fulfilled reliably in our risk assessment regime and decision-making processes, there are the issues of contention with regard to GMOs per se, and in this case GM mustard, the GMO that is on the verge of being approved as the first GM food crop that could be allowed for cultivation in farmers’ fields.

Proponents of GM mustard have a few arguments to put forth, and as someone who has been actively opposing GM mustard, I would like to present some counter arguments.

Argument 1 of proponents: ‘Farmers can decide for themselves’

A few farmers’ groups are asking why they should be denied new technologies and are issuing letters asking for GM mustard to be approved. What is strange is that they are insisting on transgenic-technology based hybrids and not hybrids per se, if yields are their main concern. Non-GM hybrids are present in the market, both from the private and public sectors. In fact, some of them perform better than the GM mustard in question. However, GM mustard has never been tested against these other hybrids even though its primary claim is of yield increase. It would have been understandable if these ‘farmers’ organisations’ demanded GM mustard approval if it had been proven to perform better than the CMS-based hybrids in the market. Around the world, those countries which have opted for non-GM hybrids in rapeseed have significantly higher yields than the three countries which have opted for GM rapeseed. 

It is also important to note that farmers are not a homogeneous group. In the case of Bt cotton, for instance, a real life, expensive and unaccountable experiment was unleashed on Indian farmers and the brunt was borne by smallholder, rainfed farmers whose cotton farming became riskier than ever before.

Further, organic farmers who are saying no, fearing contamination of their crop, are also farmers. Their philosophy and advantage of being organic farmers will be affected if GM mustard is approved. Beekeepers are a worried lot and they are also farmers – numbering five lakh households. They are asking the government to reject GM mustard. Women agricultural workers are also farmers. If GM mustard is adopted on even 25 percent of India’s mustard area, it will mean a loss of at least 4.2 crore man days of employment for the poorest women of India.

To simply say we should not be denied new technologies is untenable without clarity on what outcome you want out of such technological use, especially if it impacts other stakeholders.

Argument 2 of proponents: ‘If we are already consuming imported GM canola oil, why not approve it for cultivation here?’

Some proponents argue that we are already consuming imported GM canola oil in India and therefore we should give permission for its cultivation. They further add that there is also imported GM soybean oil coming in, apart from Bt cotton seed oil from cultivation within the country. When they present an absolute number for how much GM edible oil is being imported, they fail to present that imported GM canola oil is less than 1.5 percent of India’s total edible oil consumption. When we add other GM oil in our food chain, it is still around 12-13 percent.

 

 

 

CONSUMPTION OF IMPORTED GM CANOLA OIL WITHIN INDIA'S OIL CONSUMPTION

(LATEST 5 YEARS' PICTURE)

(All oil figures in Million Metric Tons)

Total Edible Oil Consumption

Total Edible Oil Imports

Largest Import: Palmolein Oil

GM Oil Imports

%age of GM Canola in total oil consumption

%age of imported GM oils (soy & rapeseed in total consumption

Soybean oil

Rapeseed/ Canola oil*

2016-17

22.4

15.5

9.8

3.4

0.350

1.6

16.7

2015-16

21.5

15.3

9.1

3.7

0.350

1.6

18.8

2014-15

20.4

12.4

9.4

1.5

0.300

1.5

8.8

2013-14

19.1

11.4

8.8

1.3

0.160

0.8

7.6

2012-13

17.4

9.1

7.1

1.0

0.015

0.1

5.8

Overall, 5 years

100.8

63.7

44.2

10.9

1.175

1.2

12.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: USDA GAIN Annual Reports on Oilseeds & Products.

Reports IN6047, IN5049, IN4026, IN3034, IN2030

 

 

 

 

This is still highly processed food, with Bt cotton seed oil mostly blended into other oils as the unlabelled and undeclared ingredient (same with palmolein oil which constitutes a whopping 80 percent of India’s edible oil import). Lack of evidence on health problems from even the little GM oil that we are consuming is not proof of safety of such oil.

How is this consumption a rationale for cultivation of transgenic mustard crop within India, leading to more direct ways of consumption of mustard seed, paste and leaves? How is minor consumption of imported GM oil a justification for growing the crop on our soil, with all the concomitant increase in chemical use from a herbicide tolerant crop and accompanying environmental and health risks? Is it wise to take both greater health risks as well as environmental and socio-economic risks, and do the proponents proffering this argument even realise that these are two distinctly different scenarios?

Argument 3 of proponents: ‘GM mustard has a herbicide tolerant bar gene, but it is not a herbicide tolerant crop’

There is also this twisted argument that GM mustard has a herbicide tolerant gene (bar gene, because of which the plant can withstand glufosinate sprays – the patented brands of this chemical are of Bayer, whose GM mustard application was not approved in 2002) but it is not a herbicide tolerant crop! People saying this are conveniently ignoring the fact that GM mustard developers have for years taken up research on developing HT mustard and have gone on record with project proposals for the same. Their intention is pretty clear including from a double enhancer promoter that drives the bar gene expression, making the plant withstand high levels of herbicide application. If it is not meant as an HT crop, there is no need for this component.

There is this constant refrain that “herbicide use is not recommended on this GM mustard crop”. Now, which farmer in this country is looking for recommendations and adhering to them? Do we have end-use regulation of chemicals in India once the pesticide leaves the retail outlet? Once a herbicide tolerant crop is available, farmers will believe that it is more convenient and economical to use, than employing farm labourers for de-weeding. As USDA reports show from America, it is this ‘convenience factor’ which was significantly responsible for the uptake of GM crops there and not yield increase. Farmers here are likely to do it too. This will only increase chemical usage in farming (as has happened with HT crops elsewhere, which constitute the bulk of GM crop cultivation in the world, of upto 80 percent). A herbicide like glyphosate, touted to be absolutely safe through industry propaganda for decades, has now been classified as a probable human carcinogen by WHO. Reports exist of a large environmental health crisis unfolding because of the use of HT crops in countries like Argentina and Brazil. Have the policymakers spent even a moment imagining what would happen to Punjab, that state being called the cancer capital of India with its “cancer train”, with more agro-chemicals pumped in by way of a herbicide tolerant mustard crop or the many other HT crops in the pipeline for which this could be a Trojan horse?

Argument 4 of proponents: ‘Herbicide tolerant technology is needed in India – farmers are finding it difficult to get labourers’

Initially, to deny that GM mustard is a herbicide tolerant crop, it was argued that weeds are not a problem in mustard crop at all. Now, with the crop developer admitting that it is an HT crop, the technology is being defended. Despite the fact that many committees, including the Swaminathan Task Force on Application of Agricultural Biotechnology (2004), had recommended the avoidance of HT crops in India.

In a country where women ‘workers’ in the economy are declining, can we afford to displace crores of employment days of the poorest rural women who find manual de-weeding an important source of employment without any alternatives? It is worth remembering that other sectors only have jobless growth, if at all. Why are we not facilitating a win-win situation for farmers and workers through innovative labour subsidies?

Weeds are also food, fodder and medicines for the poorest in the country. And with HT technology, growing intercrops will not be possible since only the GM crop can withstand the direct spray of herbicides on the crop. In this age of climate change, can we afford to move towards more mono-cropping? The government can think of innovative ways of support – technological and institutional – to farmers for weed control, but to bring in HT technology is foolish given its numerous ramifications.

Argument 5 of proponents: ‘This GM mustard has undergone extensive testing and has been proven to be safe’

This GM mustard has already been cleared to be safe for human health and environment by a Sub-Committee of Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the apex regulatory body for gene technology in India. RTI information shows that this sub-committee ran its processes hastily by completing its first appraisal within 15 days with the rest of the process only pursuing the initial appraisal queries and observations partially. The sub-committee also completed its processes and gave a clean chit without the health expert put into the committee participating in the two meetings that it had. In any case, this health expert cannot be treated as an independent expert given his formal links with industry-funded bodies, and that he also designed and conducted the health safety studies. Further, at least three other members of the seven-member sub-committee have conflict of interest in that they are either GM crop developers themselves, or associated formally with GM crop developing institutions. It is also noteworthy that the sub-committee finished its appraisal processes much before a group of civil society experts and activists were called into GEAC for their presentations, proving that GEAC ran only namesake processes of consultation. If it has undergone such extensive tests and the results are robust, why is the government hiding biosafety data from public scrutiny?

It is clear that GM mustard has undergone far fewer tests than even Bt brinjal, which was ultimately put on a moratorium. Within the tests done, there are indications that some statistically significant differences in health parameters are being brushed aside.

It is not just on the health safety front that serious questions remain unanswered, but on the environmental safety front also. No single test – on the food safety front or environmental safety front – has been done with GM mustard as an HT crop. How is such testing valid then?

Argument 6 of proponents: ‘This GM mustard may not yield much, but we will improve in future’

The latest, after failing to prove yield superiority of GM mustard, is that we should approve it because we have proof of concept of heterotic yield advantage with the bar-barnase-barstar technology (the three bacterial genes put into GM mustard) against GM mustard hybrid’s parents. That this can be backcrossed into better parental material for better yielding hybrids. This argument is technically invalid. The bar-barnase-barstar technology is meant for pollination control and any proof of concept established, if at all, is only for pollination control. Even this is being claimed by brushing aside field trials-based evidence of breakdown of GM-introduced male sterility. However, proof of such pollination control cannot be equated with proof of yield advantage, unless you compare GM hybrid with non-GM hybrid.

In any regulatory regime which is based on weighing benefits vis-à-vis risks, if risks are under-assessed and discounted, and claimed benefits are left totally unassessed, you are bound to come up with wrong decisions. This is unacceptable, given that there is no liability regime in place when things go wrong in future.

Kavitha Kuruganti is with ASHA (Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture), a pan-Indian network promoting sustainable farm livelihoods and food security

Genetically modified sarson, developed by Delhi University scientists, is not quite the safe, high-yield manna for farmers the government is making it out to be
Kavita Kuruganti Delhi 

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