GM Mustard : An Assualt on Reasons
The adoption of high-tech
genetically modified crops increased dramatically throughout the first decade of its introduction, but it was handicapped by a very narrow base and uncalculated risks. With unfulfilled promises and tarnished image, it is now facing a reversal in the same wining turf. While in US, states such as Vermont passed laws forcing food manufacturers to label products having GM ingredients by a symbol or code, the recalcitrant US federal government, while agreeing in principle to this demand, passed a law to stall such easy demarcation. This federal law has got a new name as Dark Act, short for "denying the Americans Right to Know ". Still, it is not a good time for Agribusiness in America. The scientific evidences and signs of adverse impacts of GM crops and GM foods are accumulating rapidly to make the future of GM food doubtful. As more than 98% of the GM plants grown in the world today are pesticide plants, which either make pesticides such as Bt toxin or requires exposure to herbicides—which are potential cancer causing agents, or both—the reasons for this doubt is rational. Moreover, arrival of new technologies such made existing GMOs crude and obsolete. As a result of all these developments, tectonic shifts are now taking place in agribusiness holdings to reflect the volatile and turbulent market situation. Syngenta has been acquired by a Chinese chemical corporation, while Du Pont and Dow merged, followed by a takeover of Monsanto by Bayer. Hence,the Agribusiness is now even more consolidated to face the ensuing tough time. It Is not surprising, that agro ecologists termed Bayer-Monsanto takeover as a "marriage made in hell".
But. what all this has got to do with the Indian farmers and ordinary consumers? Will there be any impact of these merger and consolidation on Indian agriculture?
Actually, current setback for GM foods in the West makes India more vulnerable towards fresh expansion bid by them. This is not a new but an old game. In the name of technology transfer India is always treated as a clearing house for outdated technologies. The push for the commercial release of hybrid GM mustard seed DMH11 can be read as a telltale signal of this sinister design.
As a hybrid seed technology, this GM mustard male sterility based strategy based on a toxin and its antidote is sloppy, fragile by design, and bound to fail—if practiced at all. It has also been crafted for herbicide tolerance as a selection marker, which will promote spray of herbicide. So far, India is resisting promotion of herbicide use which wipes out livelihood for women. The only rational behind introduction of DMH11 is to increase yield via hybrid vigour. But, hybrid vigour does not require GM trait and this fragile strategy per se. There are even several non GM hybrid varieties of mustard available in the market. The mustard production can be increased most efficiently by the government by giving incentive to farmers directly, instead of seed business.
The fact is, after all these tinkering, DMH11 is still not a great high yielding trait. The yield of DMH11 has been compared to a wrong unrelated low yielding variety of mustard, instead of identical non-GM control to prove its efficacy. This is possibly the greatest fault the applicant is trying to hide. One must scrutinize the curious trajectory of GM hybrid mustard seed technology and the careful timing of its rapid clearance. But, regulators are putting obstacles to resist any such attempts. An unwritten Dark Act has been imposed in India as well. The Biosafety dossier of DMH11 and its track was kept secret from public violating Right to Information Act until the Central Information Commission (CIC) stepped in and passed an order on 12 August, 2016, asking the Government to reveal the submitted Biosafety data. And the government was publicly rebuked, mentioning, that it was done on purpose to block the informed public discussion on this crucial and controversial issue. The CIC clearly said that the information sought is of high public importance, concerns public health, and it should have been in the public domain from the very beginning. Still government is not sharing the data in a user friendly manner till today. It has decided to keep copies at New Delhi for just 30 days for interested public and claiming this as public consultation! This Biosafety data sharing window will be closed on 5 October. What a farce! Activists have demanded this Biosafety data sharing and submission of questions to be extended for a minimum of 90 days. And, this must be followed by a public consultation in all mustard growing and mustard oil consuming states.
Among the 4 crops which are cultivated as GM crops, oil seed canola/rape seed is the weakest link. The reason is ease of horizontal gene flow and GM contamination. It will be insane to encourage India's small farmers to grow this and contaminate precious genetic resources. But, this GM mustard is not a product to improve the agriculture and health, if it is designed as a public sector Trojan horse, the main object of which is to force open the door for GM food production in India. Its main target is to break the Bt-Brinjal moratorium, and admit herbicide tolerant GM varieties in Indian agriculture. If permitted, it will open the flood gate for the entry of other GM foods, which are waiting.
One of the great triumph of Indian democracy was the public consultation on Bt-Brinjal, organized by the Centre of Environmental Education (CEE) in 2010, attended by farmers, scientists, industry and concerned public. Hundreds of questions were raised, most of them still remain unanswered. The mustard as a food crop cooking oil, body oil, medicine and cultural icon is even more integrated with Indian social and cultural life, compared to Brinjal. Mustard fields are not only for human consumption, they support honeybees as well. GM lobbyists should note that the messing with mustard could be dangerous!
(The Author is a molecular Geneticist and Science Communicator. May be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Vol. 49, No.18, Nov 6 - 12, 2016