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.
The alluring promises of higher yield and lower pesticide usage which induced many, including myself as Textile Secretary to the Government of India in the 1990s, 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. If I had an inkling of the future at that time, Bt cotton would not have been introduced in India.
Yields as a touchstone
We 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 ( see graph based on FAO data ). 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.
Gaps in evaluation
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.
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.
Losses and pernicious effects
The GEAC had itself rejected a similar 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.
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.
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.
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.
T.S.R. Subramanian is a former Union Cabinet Secretary