Tuesday, 28 June 2016 | Sandhya Jain
While Sangh parivar heavyweights and farmers' bodies have opposed GM crops, the Modi Government’s environment Ministry is batting for trasgenics. The stage is likely set for a serious tussle within the BJP
Cracks are appearing in the BJP-led Central Government over the issue of Genetically Modified (GM) (transgenic) crops. The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has revived a committee to consider proposals on new GM crops (Minister Prakash Javadekar bats for the technology on grounds of food security),while the Union Ministry of Agriculture has flagged serious concerns that make approval virtually impossible.
With Madhya Pradesh refusing permission for field trials of GM chickpea and mustard, the stage seems set for a serious tussle within the ruling party. Last month, the State Government hosted an extravagant Vichar Kumbh at Indore, where environmentalists and Sangh parivar heavyweights vowed to steadily reverse the ill-effects of the Green Revolution on soil health. Opposition to GM crops was implicit. Transgenics are being stoutly resisted by the Bharatiya Krishak Samaj (the national level apex body of farmers), the BJP Kisan Morcha and Swadeshi Jagran Manch. All BJP Governments will likely abide by the decisions of the Vichar Kumbh.
Former Delhi University vice chancellor Deepak Pental, who led a field trial of GM mustard (Dhara Mustard Hybrid 11 or DMH-11) by the varsity’s Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants, has been demanding its clearance for commercial cultivation. Pental received a Biotechnology career fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1986.
As resistance to transgenics grows worldwide, sources say an Indian nod could give a fillip to the stalled merger between Monsanto and Bayer that dominate the GM crop market. The immediate expected impact of the merger will be enhanced prices of seeds and pesticides; higher food prices to the consumer will follow.
More serious concerns about GM relate to loss of natural biodiversity which could expose crops to disease. America has lost over 30 varieties of soybeans as a consequence of GM soybean. This pattern will repeat in all crops exposed to GM varieties, with long-term effects on food nutrition and food security.
Anti-GM activists gatecrashed the June 20, meeting of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) which was to decide the fate of GM mustard, and lambasted DMH-11 as a “major scientific fraud”. The GEAC has consistently not called India’s leading farmer body, Bharatiya Krishak Samaj, for its expert opinion, even though its president Krishan Bir Chaudhary is an internationally renowned seed expert. He is also a former chairman of the State Farm Corporation of India (now merged into the Seed Corporation of India).
By all accounts, the GM mustard data wilts on scrutiny. The Directorate of Mustard, Union Ministry of Agriculture, has independently interrogated Pental on the methodology of his field trial, pointedly asking if the transgenic mustard was tested with the prescribed 50 meter (empty) border on all sides, to prevent cross-pollination and contamination of other crops. The team was asked if they had systematically tested the effect of transgenic pollen on the population of honey bees, predators and other farm-friendly insects.
As every part of the mustard plant is used for one or other food purposes, including for cattle, Pental was questioned about his data for safe use; data pertaining to socio-economic issues, including cost of cultivation; and if India would end up promoting the carcinogenic MNC herbicide through GM technology.
More pertinently, as mustard is an oil crop, there is danger of mixing/contamination of oils from GM and non-GM crops. The critical policy issues concerning labelling, extraction and traceability need to be addressed well in advance of commercialisation.
The neurotoxicity of GM and its effect on reproduction; on embryos and larvae; on animals; eye and skin irritation; effect on non-target plants; and carcinogenicity have to be studied. Another aspect pertains to the toxicity of the herbicide glufosinate ammonium and its impact on humans and the environment. Glufosinate is known to be toxic to beneficial soil micro-organisms, to wild plant communities, and to aquatic organisms. It can increase nitrogen leaching from arable fields, rendering them barren, and could impact underground acquifers.
Agriculture Ministry experts question the need for a GM-based hybrid as the yield advantage claimed by DMH-11 is at par with contemporary high yielding non-GM varieties of mustard. And as even better yielding varieties are now available (RH 749 being the highest yielding), the transgenic mustard yield must be compared with the latest released varieties/hybrids. Thereafter, the transgenic mustard must be tested in different agro-climatic conditions — including for climate change — after which alone can a cost-benefit analysis be done.
Most importantly, a complete metabolomic profiling (a tool to understand the mechanisms of toxicity) is necessary to properly compare GM and non-GM crops. This detailed forensic scrutiny of the GM field trial reportedly shocked the Pental team, which has been trying to bulldoze the project on the strength of Monsanto’s many ‘friends’ across the spectrum.
The team is reputedly ill-equipped in hard data. It floundered when questioned about the methods of seed production and price, and means of preventing seed monopoly. The latter is the real end game of GM technology, which is why it is called the ‘kill switch’ of agriculture.
It is pertinent that as per the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority Act, no registration of a variety can be made in cases where prevention of commercial exploitation of such variety is necessary to protect public order or public morality or human, animal and plant life and health, or to avoid serious prejudice to the environment. Moreover, no variety of any genera or species which involves any technology (including genetic use restriction technology and terminator technology) injurious to the life or health of human beings, animals or plants can be registered under the Act. This is an unsuspected and insurmountable hurdle.
GM mustard uses the “bar” gene as herbicide resistance marker gene, which involves spraying of Basta/glufosinate ammonium on the transgenic plants. As the incorporation of herbicide resistant gene will promote endless use of glufosinate ammonium, proper impact studies on health, environment, food, water, target and non-target organisms are imperative. As none of these vital studies have been conducted, one wonders why Pental is hectoring the Union Government to licence his work and allow him to wreak havoc on Indian agriculture, farmers, and people.
Meanwhile, in their anxiety to promote transgenics, the US Embassy’s Minister-Counsellor of Agriculture, Scott Sindelar, and Santosh K Singh of the US Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, directly interacted with farmers at Hapur, Uttar Pradesh, but could not convince them of the merit of GM crops.