Activists are aghast that at a time when the entire nation is concerned with laxity in food safety regulation as seen in the Maggi case, the Modi government is pushing GM food crops without adequate safety assessment and transparency
Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have opposed BT brinjal in his earlier avatar as chief minister of Gujarat but at present he is batting hard for genetically modified crops.
Launching the Doordarshan Kisan channel for farmers earlier this month, Modi came out strongly for GM crops. declaring that this would give a major boost to farmers’ incomes.
The prime minister lobbed the ball to the farmers by asking them, “Today, the country has to import pulses. Let’s resolve that by 2022... we will no longer have to import pulses… I have been telling our universities, especially our agricultural universities that, each of them, should take up a specific variety of pulse … how to do research in it, how to do genetic engineering in it, how to increase productivity, how to increase protein content so that farmers get good prices."
Modi’s concern for increasing production in edible oil and pulses is completely justified given that India has emerged as a major importer of both the commodities. At present, India’s import bill on edible oil alone stands at $10 billion per annum. In fact, edible oil is its biggest import item after (crude) oil and gold.
Modi is convinced a second green revolution will be triggered by GM crops just as the first was triggered by high-yielding wheat and rice crops.
Gujarat has been in the forefront of a similar revolution in Bt cotton with 96 per cent of its farmers having switched to this new technology, which has propelled India to become the second largest exporter of cotton in the world.
Union Minister of Environment Prakash Javadekar has supported prime minister’s stand insisting, "We cannot say no to science…. We are not living in Galileo’s time. Galileo was speaking the truth and he was punished. Nations that do not believe in science are on the path of backwardness."
Deepak Pental, a scientist at the Delhi University, has been heading research on GM mustard for nearly a decade now. Pental believes increased mustard production will immediately reduce India’s import of edible oil as it will help increase production by over 30 per cent. He also claims that GM mustard will have a vitamin that will permanently resolve the problem of malnutrition in India.
Almost on cue, after the prime minister had made clear his mind on GM, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis gave a green signal to field trials of rice, chickpeas, corn and brinjal.
The Anil Kakodkar committee appointed by the earlier United Progressive Alliance government to study the entire issue of GM crops had recommended holding field trials, but with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh affiliate Swadeshi Jagran Manch vehemently opposing the move, Fadnavis was forced to beat a hasty retreat and had put on hold all confined field trails 'until all doubts are cleared.'
Maharashtra had given no-objection certificates to 28 companies for field trials. Unfortunately, these companies had not sought prior clearance from the GEAC (Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee) and so the tests could not start.
Maharashtra has not stipulated any time-line as to when these field trials will be resumed.
Punjab, ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party-Akali Dal coalition, had also given a green signal to field trials in mustard as has the Union territory of Delhi. Karnataka, too, has okayed confined field trials in universities, but a majority of the states are against field trials.
Ashwani Mahajan, national convenor of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, believes that with a PIL (public interest litigation) on GM crops pending before the Supreme Court, the Centre should wait for the court's direction before giving the green signal for field trials.
Mahajan also asks why no certification system has been put in place for GM seeds, and also why the government has failed to conduct any scientific study on the impact of the field trials that had been okayed by GEAC in 2014.
Activists opposed to GM crops are also watching the recent developments with dismay. The Coalition for a GM Free India approached GEAC for its bio-safety research dossiers on GM mustard developed by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants, Delhi University, with support from the Department of Biotechnology and the National Dairy Development Board, but these requests have been turned down.
The requests were filed under the Right to Information Act in which they asked for data on environmental and toxicity studies done on GM mustard.
Kavitha Kuruganti, convenor, Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, noted that the DMH11 hybrid mustard has been created by genetically engineering bacterial genes of selected mustard parental lines to create male sterile parent plants. This is used for the production of hybrid seeds which are then sold to the farmers for cultivation.
Along with these genes for hybrid production is another bacterial gene for herbicide tolerance in the guise of a marker gene.
"At a time when the entire nation is concerned with laxity in food safety regulation as seen in the Maggi case, it is outrageous that GM food crops are being pushed without adequate safety assessment and transparency," said Kuruganti.
Kuruganti also maintains that GM mustard comes up for consideration for commercialisation approval at a time when there is an increasing number of scientific evidence on the adverse impacts of GM crops and herbicides including a recent World Health Organisation study pointing to the carcinogenic potential of herbicides like glyphosate. Contamination is inevitable from the GM mustard and even the developer of the GM mustard, Dr Pental, had accepted that, which becomes a matter of grave concern, she claims.
Kuruganti questions the claim that GM mustard will see a 30 per cent increase in mustard production. "The yield increase is more in the domain of 15-20 per cent and that will come about through the use of high yielding seeds," she said.
Activists also warn that while India has more varieties of mustard than any other nation in the world, and a large number of these will be sidelined if GM mustard is introduced. The same story would have been repeated in the case of brinjal, especially since India has between 300 and 400 varieties of brinjal.
"We expect GM mustard to be the first such crop to come in for commercial cultivation because of the claim that it will help reduce the burden of payment on imported edible oil," Kuruganti added. This will make it the first GM food crop to come in for commercial cultivation after Jairam Ramesh ordered a moratorium on the cultivation of GM brinjal five years ago.
What activists find hard to swallow is that despite the Supreme Court having ordered that all bio-safety reports be placed in the public domain, the GEAC’s unwillingness to provide information is a flagrant violation of this order.
The Coalition for a GM Free India has also lodged a complaint with the environment ministry about how the trials of GM mustard held in Bhatinda were done in violation of the protocols laid out by GEAC.
Pankaj Bhushan, a co-convenor with the Coalition, from Muzaffarpur, pointed out, "We visited Punjab University two months after the GM mustard had been harvested and found plants still lying around in the field. The stipulation is in clear violation of the rules which state that all plants must be burnt. We have given photographic evidence of this violation," said Bhushan.
Other environmental groups including Greenpeace oppose field trials and claim that without proper regulatory mechanisms in place, the public will be vulnerable to contamination with untested and potentially hazardous GM food.
Modi is batting for increased food productivity. He asked farmers to increase foodgrains productivity from two tonnes a hectare to three tonnes and also adopt a three-pronged farm approach that would balance farming, animal husbandry and tree plantation.
“Our average farm productivity comes to two tonnes per hectare against the global average of three tonnes a hectare. We must strive to reach the global levels," he told farmers in order to help ensure food security for the country’s rising population.
He, however, did not spell out whether GM food and its subsequent fallout would help provide this food security.