The country’s biotechnology regulator,genetic engineering appraisal committee (GEAC),which functions under the Environment Ministry, has approved the environmental release and cultivation by farmers of DMH-11.
It is a genetically modified (GM) hybrid mustard developed by scientists at Delhi University.
The GEAC also took same decision for the commercial release of Bt brinjal which was overturned in February 2010 by the then Environment Minister Jai Ram Ramesh who assumed the role of regulator and ordered a moratorium on the transgenic vegetable’s cultivation.
The present matter of DMH-11 is now on the environment ministry’s table.The ministry will decide about the future of DMH-1. On this context,we try to examine and explore the condition of GM crops in India.
History of GM crops in India
In 1966-67, then Union Minister for Food and Agriculture Chidambaram Subramaniam decided to import 18,000 tones of seeds of Lerma Rojo 64A and Sonora 64 wheat from Mexico.
They were supposed to be planted in about 2,40,000 hectares in the 1966-67 Rabi season. And the seeds arrived on time. Between 1965-66 and 1967-68, because of it,India’s wheat production grew from 10.4 million tones (mt) to over 16.5 mt, surpassing 20 mt in the next two years. Thus was born the Green Revolution.
Subramaniam received a flood of criticism when he proposed what was the largest import of seeds ever undertaken in world history. Planning Commission member V.K.R.V. Rao saw it as a waste of foreign exchange for a country already short of reserves.
It was believed that Indian farmers wouldn’t accept the Mexican semi-dwarf wheat, as they might yield less Bhusa (straw).
But the results were better in terms of producing more grain as well as Bhusa per hectare than the traditional tall, lodging-prone cultivators.
Many years later, Atal Bihari Vajpayee showed similar willingness when his government approved the commercial cultivation of Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) Bt cotton.
Just Mexican wheat increased India’s wheat output in four, similarly, Bt cotton almost trebled domestic production from 136 lakh bales (lb) to 398 lb between 2002-03 and 2013-14, and the country turned from a net importer of roughly 17 lb to a net exporter of over 105 lb.
India has resisted and has shown reluctance to GM food production till now there have been instances of GM food being imported into the country (including baby food, corn, and breakfast cereal, which have been introduced without adherence to relevant labeling laws).
No State government in India has permitted commercial cultivation of GM food till now.
But Field trials for 21 GM food crops, including GM vegetables and cereals, have been approved by the government.
It can be said that the manner in which the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) recently cleared the proposal for genetically modified (GM) mustard is extraordinary, to say the least.
What is the science behind GM crops?
In 1950s scientists Watson and Crick, discovered the DNA double-helix model. After this discovery scientists had started thinking that it was possible to manipulate the DNA features of an organism to create new traits in them by borrowing genes from other organisms and mixing it with theirs.
In the case of GM food, scientists insert into a plant’s genome one or several gene from another species of plant or even from a bacterium, virus or animal. This is to inject desired traits such as pest-resistance or Vitamin A (as in the case of golden rice).
Is GM food unsafe?
In May 2017, over a hundred Nobel laureates wrote a letter to NGO Greenpeace calling its campaign against genetically modified (GM) crops “misleading” and “unscientific.” The letter has restarted the debate over how safe it is to consume GM food.
GM crops have been criticized by a number of medical professionals and other scientists for leading to serious health conditions and increasing chemical herbicide use.
A scientific report from Argentina found a fourfold increase in birth defects and a threefold increase in childhood cancers in HT soya areas.
And it is criticized that the GEAC has conveniently omitted to have any herbicide-related studies.
The GEAC had set up a small committee to “examine” the safety dossier. And the tests were conducted in secrecy.
After a strict order from the Central Information Commission, the GEAC made a mockery of public consultations, through a perfunctory and opaque eyewash process.
Arguments against GM
There are arguments against GM food that are economic and social in nature. Experts of organic farming have voiced serious concern about multinational agribusiness companies such as Monsanto and Bayer taking over farming from the hands of small farmers, which includes several poor women in developing countries like India.
This would mean a loss of autonomy over the manner in which agriculture itself is practiced, with increased dependence on GM seed companies and herbicides manufactured by them, putting the financial strain on farmer households.
There are also concerns regarding loss of food biodiversity if corporate food varieties begin to flood the markets.
There have been numerous severe deficiencies in the evaluation process of GM mustard. The risks to health, environment, and agriculture have not been evaluated even through those inadequate tests which were conducted at the time of Bt brinjal examination, though mustard is far more extensively grown and consumed than brinjal.
The U.S. is a prime example of a country which has ventured into the GM mode of agriculture. Studies have shown a strong correlation between growth of GM crops, the herbicides they promote, and diseases such as acute diabetes, kidney injury, Alzheimer’s, autism, and cancers in the past 20 years in the U.S.
Seventeen of the twenty most developed countries — including Japan, Israel, Russia, and most of Europe — refuse to grow GM crops.
If GM mustard is now introduced, who will lose? Every Indian who consumes mustard in any form, as s/he will also consume the herbicide residues on it; the millions of poor women who depend on weeding to support their family who will be displaced; the bee keepers whose honey will be contaminated; farmers whose yields will fall eventually as bees die out; and the Indian nation, which will find that it has lost its seed diversity and the international competitive advantage of its non-GM mustard and honey.
Arguments in Favor of GM
The main argument made in favor of GM mustard is increased yield. The argument says that GM crops produce more yields. And it is backed by a handful of experiments. The examination of these experiments has been hardly done by the GEAC.
The most wide-ranging of these studies is a 2014 meta-analysis done by Wilhelm Klumper and Matin Qaim of the University of Gottingen, Germany. They did 147 studies on farm surveys and field trials of GM crops carried out across the world.
Their results showed that use of GM technology reduced chemical pesticides by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. It also produced better results in developing countries than in developed ones.
In this whole discussion about GM crops, the one person whose views should matter most, but seem to matter the least is the farmer himself. A farmer should be informed about the true facts related to any GM crops and it should be left to his will whether he wants to cultivate it or not.
A farmer, we know very well, will not say whether a new hybrid/variety is good or bad until he has planted them and seen the results or he is properly informed about the crops.
But, it is the irony that such an environment has been created today where he is being denied the chance to make an informed judgment by those who don’t really farm for a living. So, GM crops can be welcome if the farmer agrees with it.