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GM Mustard debate

GS3 – Awareness in the fields of IT, Space, Computers, robotics, nano-technology, bio-technology and issues relating to intellectual property rights.

GS3 – Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation, environmental impact assessment

Context

  • 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.
  • It makes a mockery of the commitment in the Bharatiya Janata Party manifesto that “GM foods will not be allowed without full scientific evaluation on the long term effects on soil, production and biological impact on consumers”.
  • The Prime Minister had delighted consumers by lending his weight to the promotion of organic food.
  • On the other hand, GM and organic are completely incompatible.

What is GM Mustard?

  • Hybrid variety of a crop is obtained by crossing of two genetically diverse plants of same species and it can give higher yields than their parents.
  • But mustard cannot be naturally hybridised because it is a self-pollinating plant having both male and female reproductive parts in a single flower.
  • Hence there is no natural hybridization system in mustard, unlike in, say, cotton, maize or tomato.
  • The GM hybridised mustard, as it is claimed, gives up to 30% more yield than the best varieties such as ‘Varuna’ currently grown in the country.  Researchers have used “barnase / barstar” technology for genetic modification.
  • A barnase gene is isolated from a soil bacterium called Bacillus amyloliquefaciens. The gene can code for a protein that impairs the pollen production in a plant making it male-sterile.
  • This male-sterile variety is crossed with a parent variety having a gene called ‘barstar’ to block the action of barnase gene. The resulting variety, having both foreign genes, is a fertile plant and it can increase yield of the crop.
  • Scientists showed that this problem could be addressed by crossing Indian mustard cultivars with juncea lines of East European origin like ‘Early Heera’ and ‘Donskaja’. The combination of the 2 divergent gene pools enhanced the crossing options; the resultant F1 progeny were found to exhibit significant heterosis.

Why a hybridised mustard variety is required?

  • Researchers and promoters of GM Mustard argue that India imports Rs.60,000 crore worth of edible oils every year. There is an urgent need to reduce dependence on imports and raise domestic crop yields of mustard, which in turn raises production of edible oils domestically.
  • To improve yields, hybridisation is a potential technique as it is successfully demonstrated with many other crops.

Why there is an objection for its introduction?

  • The main reason for its objection is in use of GM technology for hybridisation involving use of alien genes.
  • Though GM technology is already commercialised in India through Bt cotton, it is argued that cotton is not a food crop whereas mustard is largest edible oil yielding crop of India. Its introduction may adversely affect human and animal health.
  • It is also argued that the reason for increased imports of edible oils is because of reduction in import duties and that in turn discouraged domestic production by companies. It resulted in reduction of cultivation of the crop by farmers.
  • There was similar opposition to introduction of Btbrinjal, another GM crop approved by the GEAC in 2009.
  • When sustainable farming and low-input agriculture are becoming the buzzwords, crop varieties that will end up doing more harm to the environment and crop fields is not understable. GM mustard will require almost double the quantity of fertiliser and water.
  • Other Health concerns of GM Hybrid Mazie include: allergenicity; gene transfer, especially of antibiotic-resistant genes, from GM foods to cells or bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract; and `out crossing’, or the movement of genes from GM plants to conventional crops, posing indirect threats to food safety and security.
  • GM mustard can affect honeybees directly and indirectly through effecting flowering and pollen production. Protease inhibitors have proved detrimental to the longevity and behaviour of bees.
  • Regulatory weakness-The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, which is responsible for approving large-scale releases and commercialisation of GMOs, functions under the Ministry of Environment and Forests and is not entirely independent.
  • The case of the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation that supervises and clears research activities and also small-scale field trials is even starker. It is part of the Department of Biotechnology, whose primary task is to promote biotechnology. DBT therefore is the promoter as well as the regulator. On several occasions, developers of transgenic crops have also been members of regulatory committees

Arguments in favour

  • The use of GM technology through Bt cotton has increased the country’s cotton production by more than 2½ times since it was first planted in 2002. There are no evidences to show the adverse impact on human and animal health.
  • Cotton-seed yields not just fibre but also oil and oilcake that are fed to animals. That makes it no less than a food crop.
  • And also India imports soyabean oil and rapeseed oil that are mainly GM varieties.

Arguments against

  • The alluring promises of higher yield and lower pesticide usage which induced many to welcome Bt cotton have now been belied.
  • Despite increased fertilisers and irrigation, the expectations of enhanced cotton yield have not been realised.
  • Most of the countries that have higher cotton yields than India do not grow GM cotton. The package of promises sold to us did not reveal all of this.
  • It would now be foolish in accepting the yield promises of the GM variety of mustard, a crop which is an integral part of every Indian’s food.
  • Ab initio the yield claims on which GM mustard has been cleared are not even remotely reliable — being based on comparisons with 30-year-old cultivars, and not on more recent high-yielding hybrids.
  • The highest yields in mustard are from the five countries which do not grow GM mustard — U.K., France, Poland, Germany and Czech Republic — and not from the GM-growing U.S. or Canada.
  • If India is desirous to increase its mustard yield rapidly and safely, this can be done by adopting the practice of System of Mustard Intensification, for which successful trials have been done in Bihar through a World Bank project.
  • Results showed higher yields and better income. All this without the spraying of any toxic herbicides, which is the undisclosed story of GM mustard.
  • GM mustard’s yield increase claims have been successfully challenged now, prompting the crop developers and regulators to retract on that front — it is another matter that many reports continue to claim that GM mustard will increase yields.

Problems at policy formulation level

  • 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.
  • HT (herbicide tolerant) GM crops have been condemned by a number of medical professionals and other scientists for increasing chemical herbicide use, leading to serious health conditions — at all stages, but most worryingly at the foetal stage.
  • A scientific report from Argentina found a fourfold increase in birth defects and a threefold increase in childhood cancers in HT soya areas.
  • Shockingly, the GEAC has conveniently omitted to have any herbicide-related studies. A small committee was constituted to “examine” the safety dossier — the tests that were done and the deliberations of GEAC were shrouded in secrecy.
  • After a scathing order from the Central Information Commission, the GEAC made a sham of public consultations, through an opaque and perfunctory eyewash process.

 

Examples worldwide

  • The U.S. is a prime example of a country which has galloped 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 kidney injury, diabetes, autism, Alzheimer’s and cancers in the past 20 years in the U.S. Seventeen of the 20 most developed countries — including Japan, Russia, Israel and most of Europe — refuse to grow GM crops.
  • An unacceptable marketing trick, that of promotion of a “swadeshi” GM, is being used to break down resistance to GM crops in India’s vast market, ignoring that safety concerns are the same — swadeshi GM or not.

Health effects

  • The GEAC had itself rejected a HT GM mustard proposal by Bayer in 2002. The same reasons apply now.
  • A herbicide-tolerant crop promotes constant exposure to a single herbicide — which eventually results in weeds becoming resistant.
  • Over 20 species of weeds in the U.S. are now resistant to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicide. As desperate farmers tried to control these “superweeds”, there was a tenfold increase in use of glyphosate in 16 years.
  • Glyphosate has been declared to be a “probable human carcinogen” by the World Health Organisation. The glufosinate-based herbicide to which the proposed GM mustard is tolerant will also have adverse impacts on health.
  • 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.
  • A recent report, not by activists but by the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, sums up the end game when it says: “Recent mergers have resulted in just three powerful corporations: Monsanto and Bayer, Dow and Dupont, and Syngenta and ChemChina. They control more than 65 per cent of global pesticide sales. Serious conflicts of interest issues arise, as they also control almost 61 per cent of commercial seed sales. The pesticide industry’s efforts to influence policymakers and regulators have obstructed reforms and paralysed global pesticide restrictions globally.” Their business model ensures that no matter who produces a GM seed, they profit.

 

Should India Ban GM Crops?

  • GM technology has already been commercialized in India through Bt cotton, which is also based on incorporation of foreign genes derived from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis.country’s cotton production has gone up more than 2½ times since Bt hybrids were first planted in 2002. Nor has any evidence emerged really of Bt cotton causing any adverse human or animal health effects.
  • While the likes of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Philippines and Vietnam are adopting GM technology to improve crop yields and reduce input costs, we are still questioning its potential not on the basis of scientific evidence, but using emotional arguments.
  • Bangladesh was the 1st country to approve the commercial planting of Bt brinjal in late-2013, after being disallowed by India. Bt brinjal has been harvested over 2 seasons, with farmers deriving better marketable yields and incomes from its successful commercialization.
  • The main advantage trotted out in favour of GM mustard is increased yield — there is sufficient evidence that this claim is a myth.
  • As against this alleged advantage, there are formidable social, economic and environmental reasons which cry out against GM mustard — examination of these has been hardly done by the GEAC.
  • As the PR agencies work overtime to push for GM mustard, one can only hope that the Environment Minister, the Prime Minister and the Supreme Court will act in concert to protect Indian consumers, and farmers from the potentially irreversible destruction of an important Indian crop.

Way forward

  • In a current environment where climatic change would have negative effects on yield of many major crops which could seriously undermine food security, GM crops are the way forward.
  • However at the same time to convince the opponents of GM crops to allow commercialization of GM crops we need a strong regulatory framework.
  • What is therefore needed is an independent biotechnology regulatory authority, a single organization that will replace the multiple committees – at least six – that are part of the current regulatory structure. This authority would deal with the use of all GMOs in agriculture, pharmaceutical and biodiversity sector
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