Do you think the technical expert committee (TEC) is right in giving a favourable verdict on commercialisation of GM mustard?
Clearly, this GM mustard holds great potential to improve productivity of mustard in India. Currently, India imports a lot of mustard oil, which could be grown domestically if there were higher-yielding hybrids available. If people keep strangling agricultural innovation in India, the country will become increasingly reliant on imports and increasingly food-insecure as the population increases and consumption rises.
How do you view TEC expertise in handling these issues?
TEC's expertise is not in question. It is ironic because this mustard is a home-grown GMO developed by Deepak Pental and other Indian scientists in Delhi University.
Anti-GM activists are questioning the trials and tests done by TEC that led to the favourable nod to GM mustard. Do you think their argument is justified?
No amount of tests will satisfy them (anti-GM activists). We have already had 30 years of safe use of this technology. Let's be clear: anti-GM people are trying to prohibit an entire field of scientific endeavour.
Opponents of GM mustard are saying developers haven't produced a single instance of health test to the public or blood analysis of animals that have consumed GM mustard to prove that it is safe for human consumption. Do you think both these tests are necessary for establishing the safety of GM mustard?
There is a 120-page safety assessment document available, which I can only assume none of the opponents of GM mustard has bothered to read. They sound plausible, but this is just about demanding more and more ridiculous data. "Feeding studies with 100 rats not enough? We must have 10,000 rats! Or a million!" It's just a blocking tactic, aimed at scaring the public. What is important is to understand that there is a worldwide scientific consensus that the technology of GM is as safe as any other form of crop breeding, and probably safer.
There is an allegation that use of GM mustard would lead to increased use of herbicide, which would benefit a particular company making plant chemicals and instrumental in developing the GM mustard seed. Do you think there is any substance to this argument?
The trait that GM mustard has is male-sterility in order to facilitate the use of hybrids, which can increase yield via hybrid
vigour. The herbicide tolerance trait was only used in development as a selectable marker for hybrids, and is not intended for use in the field. Scientific studies have shown that GMOs globally have dramatically reduced pesticide use, by about 40 per cent.
According to you, what should be the approach of the government on GM mustard and how should it go about so that farmers gain?
My view is farmers should be the ones to choose. Once the competent technical authorities have performed their assessments, this should move out of the political realm. Farmers can choose to grow or not, and consumers can choose to buy or not. Let the market decide. We need to hear the legitimate voice of farmers in this debate.
Do you think large-scale commercialisation of GM mustard would wipe off all indigenous (native or local) varieties of mustard from the country?
No, because cross-pollination is not an issue. Remember: mustard self-pollinates! That is the whole point of this development, to prevent self-pollination via a male sterility trait, thereby facilitating the use of hybrids. But you can grow GM mustard and existing varieties right next to each other and it is highly unlikely there will be any out-crossing, so this is another non-argument. These will be hybrids, which do not breed true and so seeds will not be saved.
Many people are questioning the need for GM mustard when existing hybrid varieties give better yield. Your take.
Existing hybrid varieties are difficult and expensive to produce, due to the fact that mustard is self-pollinating, so it is difficult to get it to cross-fertilise with different lines in order to produce hybrid vigour. The GM version is male-sterile so it simplifies this process, meaning that hybrid vigour will be available to many more farmers at a better cost. How it will perform in the market remains to be seen: At the very least, farmers and consumers should be given a choice.