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Seeds of discontent?

On September 5, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) released an “Assessment of Food and Environmental Safety” for genetically modified (GM) mustard on its website, and gave the public a month to respond with comments and concerns. This review report was put together by an expert sub-committee of the ministry’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC). The public consultation is likely to be the penultimate step before the government takes a final decision on what might become India’s first GM food crop — Bt cotton seeds, though also crushed for edible oil, were not explicitly approved as food; Bt brinjal is unlikely to emerge out of the moratorium issued by former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh any time soon.

GM mustard represents the culmination of over a decade of painstaking work by a team of Delhi University scientists led by the noted biotechnologist, Deepak Pental. Mustard, a self-pollinating crop, is difficult to hybridise, that is, cross-pollinate. Pental’s team has genetically modified an Indian mustard, Varuna, and an East European mustard line in order to cross-pollinate them. They have sought permission to commercially release the resultant hybrid named DMH-11, and to use the two GM parental lines for developing new hybrids. They claim that by virtue of being a hybrid (rather than a GM crop), DMH-11 yields about 30 per cent more than a reference mustard variety. Given India’s huge import bill for edible oil, they argue, this effort to boost mustard yields must be welcomed. Indeed, this may well be a moment for us to appreciate government-led scientific efforts — except that the case for GM mustard is not as straightforward as the government makes it seem.

Biosafety and socio-economic impact

GM mustard is resistant to the herbicide glufosinate, and thus a herbicide-tolerant (HT) crop. A farmer growing DMH-11 can potentially get rid of weeds with a blanket spray of glufosinate (sold in India by Bayer under the brand name Basta), which will kill all the plants except the mustard crop. The technical expert committee appointed by the Supreme Court in an ongoing public interest litigation (PIL) concerning GM crops had found HT crops “completely unsuitable in the Indian context” in its final, majority report. The principal reasons were that herbicides adversely impact the vast constituency of manual labourers, for whom weeding provides livelihood, and generate selective pressure for the emergence of herbicide-resistant or “super” weeds. The aforementioned MoEFCC review report on GM mustard makes light of these concerns, and simply notes that farmers are not “required to spray herbicide” on GM mustard fields — which is neither here nor there.

Second, there are concerns that the yield advantage of GM mustard has been over-estimated by comparing it with dated mustard reference varieties. Sharad E. Pawar, Fellow of the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, has analysed the yield data of DMH-11 and shown that it has “no yield advantage over varieties and hybrids released in recent years”; a view also held by the government’s own Directorate of Rapeseed-Mustard Research.

Transparency and public participation

These and other concerns (such as over gene flow, impact on biodiversity) might have been addressed if the government had made public the details of its case for GM mustard — and by “making public”, I mean making its case freely and widely available, even to those who cannot access websites or read English. However, having uploaded the review report, the MoEFCC has made the primary data on agronomic and biosafety assessment available only to those who can visit the GEAC secretariat in New Delhi by prior appointment during working hours before October 5.

Equally serious is the fact that withholding the full biosafety dossier violates the government’s own commitments given to the Supreme Court on April 8, 2008 in the hearing on the aforementioned PIL. Consequently, we do not know, for example, if sociologists considered the impact of GM mustard on agricultural labourers; or if ecologists, toxicologists and nutritionists investigated the wider impact of potential glufosinate use on mustard fields. In April and again in August, the Central Information Commission ordered the MoEFCC to release complete information on GM mustard and other GM crops. The Commission also ordered the GEAC to disclose the agenda and full, detailed minutes of its meetings, which the Ministry had stopped doing since 2012. The Ministry continues to disregard these orders.

Thereby, the MoEFCC is reducing public participation to a farce. Denying citizens a voice in this matter is all the more serious considering that no labelling regime is in place in India. That is, if commercialised, citizens will not have the choice of opting out of GM sarson da saag, for instance.

Perhaps, developers of GM mustard and the government fear that releasing the biosafety dossier will lead them down the path of Bt brinjal, but this fear is misplaced. The government is within its rights to take a strategic decision to commercialise GM mustard despite opposition, but this cannot come at the cost of transparency and fidelity to the law. At the minimum, the full biosafety dossier for GM mustard must be uploaded on the Ministry’s website, the GEAC should disclose its full agenda notes and minutes for each of its meetings, and the window for public consultation should be extended beyond 30 days.

As the distinguished biotechnologist, mustard-breeder, and former Director-General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research V. L. Chopra wrote some years ago, greater transparency and wider public participation may be the most effective way of “allaying fears and building confidence” in our regulatory institutions.

Aniket Aga is Assistant Professor at the School for Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Email: aaniket@umich.edu

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