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Why govt’s policy shift on GM crops may run into rough weather

The Union government’s green signal for genetically modified (GM) herbicide tolerant (HT) mustard, Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11), buttressed by its statements in Parliament and the Supreme Court, points to a significant shift in official policy concerning GM crops. Going beyond considering it to be safe for food and feed use, the government is now advocating that GM technology is vital for India’s food security and reducing imports.

The paradigm shift is an endorsement of the argument that genetic engineering is essential to meet the growing demand for farm products, boost farmers’ incomes by reducing production costs, and face the challenges posed by pests, diseases and climate change. There is also the compelling need for another technology-driven Green Revolution (some call it Yellow Revolution in the context of mustard) that leads to introducing genetically superior variants of foods and commercial crops.

GM mustard is not the only food crop that has had to wait for over a decade for clearance. The anti-GM lobby, notably RSS affiliate Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) and several pro-green groups, had stalled the fate of the gene-tweaked Bt brinjal after it had received the nod of regulator Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) way back in 2009. It failed to reach farmers’ fields, and worse still prompted the government to impose a 10-year moratorium on field trials of all GM seeds. That Bt brinjal, developed in India, is being grown in Bangladesh and Philippines is a poignant reminder of the absence of consistency in India’s GM crops policy in adopting adequate safeguards.

Now, despite the positive strokes welcoming GM mustard, concerns remain about DMH-11. That it will yield 25-30 per cent more and is herbicide tolerant continues to be challenged. Opponents say that in its testing, DMH-11 was not compared with non-GM hybrids. For hybrid trial, hybrid checks are essential, especially in the case of GM mustard hybrid, since it is claiming to be a better hybridisation technology than non-GM hybridisation options that already exist for breeders and seed producers.

“It was not even tested against varieties designated as zonal and national in the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) system of testing, but were compared against varieties released long ago in India,” says Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture. She alleges the comparators used for GM mustard testing violated ICAR protocols as well as the conditions under which permission was granted by GEAC. Despite all of this, both ICAR and GEAC allowed the crop developer to move forward in the regulatory pipeline. Further, there is no evidence that DMH-11 will yield more than existing hybrid varieties, she adds.

The other major concern is herbicide tolerance. Some argue that GM mustard has nothing new to offer other than the risks of transgenic HT technology. Independent experts of the Supreme Court’s technical expert committee on GM have recommended a ban on HT crops. They have suggested a ban on GM in crops for which India is the centre of origin or diversity. “That GM mustard has been sought to be camouflaged as a hybridisation technology, and not an HT crop which it very much is, implies that testing has never been done as an HT crop,” argues Kuruganti. She expects the Supreme Court, where the matter is pending, to take cognisance of these ‘irregularities’.

An overriding concern for the government for pushing DMH-11 is meeting domestic edible oil needs by minimising the import bill. Yet, this may not be a credible argument for propagating DMH-11. “In India, where huge genetic diversity for mustard exists, there is an imperative to pick up from the forgotten Yellow Revolution,” suggests food policy analyst Devinder Sharma. It was in 1985-86 that then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had launched the Oilseeds Technology Mission with an aim to increase edible oil production and reduce import dependence.


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