A determined battle by environmentalists in the Supreme Court of India against Delhi University’s genetically modified (GM) herbicide-tolerant (HT) mustard is all that stands between GM food and Indian farmers and consumers. GM crops are quite different from conventional varieties and hybrids, such as those developed by farmers, agricultural research institutions and companies. Biotechnologists insert select genes at a random location in the DNA of a plant to develop a GM crop. The insertion makes a GM crop express traits that it ordinarily would not. For instance, GM mustard has been altered to withstand the broad-spectrum plant-killer or herbicide glufosinate. This makes it easier to develop hybrid mustard seeds for higher yields. And farmers growing GM mustard can spray the herbicide to kill all plants except the mustard.
GM crops in India, the debate
India has seen a robust debate on GM crops in the last two decades. Environmentalists, scientists, politicians, farmers, consumers and the higher judiciary have asked probing questions about the safety, efficacy and even the very necessity of GM food.
Many have been alarmed by the experience with Bt cotton, the first and only GM crop approved in the country. Long-term research suggests that Bt cotton has provided only fleeting benefits to farmers, while enormously increasing their costs of cultivation and risk. On the other hand, some seed companies have profited handsomely from the expensive GM seeds.
In the wake of the fierce debate, two Standing Committees of the Parliament independently and comprehensively examined GM crops and food. The Supreme Court also appointed a Technical Expert Committee (TEC) in the public interest litigations filed separately by the non-government organisation Gene Campaign and the environmentalist, Aruna Rodrigues.
Thus there are two reports concerning GM food from the highest legislative body in the country — one by the Standing Committee on Agriculture in 2012 during Manmohan Singh’s government, and another by the Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests in 2017 during Narendra Modi’s government. Both committees included Members of Parliament from the ruling and Opposition parties.
Convergence in risk assessment
Working across an interval of five years, the two committees unanimously highlighted major weaknesses in the regulatory system, and called for utmost caution before releasing GM food. The Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests made a specific reference to GM mustard, and asked the government to conduct a thorough, independent, and transparent assessment of long-term biosafety, environmental risk and socio-economic impacts. Five of the six TEC members also pointed to grave deficiencies in the safety assessment of GM crops in their report that was released in 2013. They found HT crops “completely unsuitable in the Indian context” and warned of serious harm to the environment, rural livelihoods and sustainable agriculture if they were released.
This is a case of decisive convergence among noted scientists and the people’s elected representatives. This is as compelling a case as can be against releasing any HT crop, and for comprehensively strengthening regulation before allowing GM food. Such convergence refutes the prejudice that critics of GM crops are against development.
Given the overwhelming political and technical consensus, the government needs to approach the issue of HT crops transparently and robustly with an emphasis on precaution. Instead, the government is pushing ahead with GM mustard with reckless disregard for both science and the law. For instance, it has not placed the full biosafety dossier of GM mustard in the public domain, despite the provisions of the Right To Information Act and a declaration to this effect by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee of the Environment Ministry. Nor is it adequately responding to criticisms from agricultural scientists that already available non-GM mustard hybrids have better yields than GM mustard.
Misleading the court
In recent hearings in the Supreme Court, to get around the growing evidence of long-term ecological and health risks of HT crops, the government has argued that GM mustard should not be considered HT at all — since the objective for developing it was to improve yields. In fact, a crop that can withstand herbicides is an HT crop. As far as the science of biotechnology and ecology go, there is no doubt that GM mustard is an HT crop. The government’s argument is nothing but a red herring, designed perhaps to confuse the Supreme Court. It would be shocking if scientists involved with developing GM mustard were to go along with misleading the Court and the public.
The apparent disregard with which the government is steamrolling science-based concerns and opposition to GM mustard is horrifying. Instead of seriously engaging with constitutional issues involving public health, environmental protection and agricultural livelihoods, the government is making a mockery of facts and logic before the Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court allows GM mustard to go through, it will likely pave the way for the release of other HT crops such as cotton, rice, and maize. The future of farming and India’s food culture and heritage hangs in the balance.
Aniket Aga is an anthropologist and author of ‘Genetically Modified Democracy: Transgenic crops in contemporary India’. E-mail: email@example.com