Volume IconAre the fears over GM mustard overblown?

Biotech regulator GEAC has recommended the environmental release of genetically-modified mustard. But not all are happy with this decision. So what are the concerns around GM crops?

GM mustard

Genetically modified food has been opposed by activists and politicians in India due to fears that it could compromise food safety and biodiversity | Photo: Reuters

US seed manufacturer Monsanto, now a unit of Germany’s Bayer, launched the world’s first genetically modified crop in 1996. Since then, about 30 countries have taken to biotech crops including soybean, corn, tomato, squash, papaya, cotton, maize and sugarbeet.   

 India first allowed GM cultivation with Monsanto’s lab-altered cotton in 2002. The move helped transform India into the world’s second largest cotton producer and exporter after China. In the two decades since then, India has not approved any transgenic crop.

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 In 2009, genetically modified Bt brinjal was cleared for general cultivation by India’s biotech regulator Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee or GEAC, after years of multi-location field trials. 

 Bt brinjal was developed by Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company under licence from Monsanto. But its seeds were not distributed to the farmers officially due to the indefinite moratorium put on its cultivation by the then environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, following opposition from activists and some farmers. India’s neighbour Bangladesh allowed commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal in 2013.

The GEAC, under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, has now paved the way for the commercialisation of the country’s first GM food crop. The government panel has granted environmental clearance for indigenously developed GM mustard seed variety DMH-11, which has been shown to deliver 30% higher yields than existing varieties.

In 2017, a similar approval had to be recalled in the face of opposition from activists across the political spectrum. Mustard is cultivated by around 6 million farmers in around 6.5-7 million hectares of land across the states of Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh.

Deepak Pental, a geneticist and former vice-chancellor of Delhi University, developed the seeds along with his team in an over decade-long effort. 

Calling the approval a “landmark development”, Pental said farmers can get hold of GM mustard hybrids in the next two years if all the steps from here fall in place.

To grow the seeds commercially, a final approval is still required from the ministry. While giving the nod, the GEAC has said that field demonstration studies on the impact of the mustard variety on honey bees and other pollinators will have to be conducted under the supervision of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research within two years. 

Environmental activists and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have opposed GEAC’s clearance and urged the government to not give a final nod. Ashwini Mahajan, co-convener of Swadeshi Jagran Manch, termed the mustard variety extremely dangerous to public health and farmers.

Kavitha Kuruganti, Co-convener, Coalition for a GM-Free India says, GM crops are not tested in major mustard growing states. 
Tests not conducted on all biosafety parameters. Concerns on testing raised in 2017 remain unresolved. There are health impacts from genetic engineering process. 

Mustard oil accounted for 14.1% of India’s total edible oil consumption in 2020-21. India is the world’s biggest importer of edible oils and last fiscal, it spent nearly $19 billion, a jump of 71%, importing vegetable oils including palm and sunflowers oils.

GM mustard can help the country reduce import dependency in this area. India fills more than 70% of its edible oil demand from Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia and Ukraine. 

Many scientists and agricultural experts have called for faster clearance of GM crops as India's farming acreage shrinks because of rapid urbanisation and erratic weather that threatens output of staple foodgrains such as rice and wheat.

But conservative politicians and advocacy groups have opposed transgenic technology in farming, in the belief that GM crops could compromise food safety and biodiversity and pose a health hazard. 

The DMH-11 mustard variety is herbicide tolerant, allowing farmers to spray over the crops with weed killer without harming the crops. This has raised fears that farmers may resort to excessive use of toxic herbicides which can lead to weeds becoming resistant to them and the emergence of so-called superweeds. Critics are also concerned about herbicide residue on GM crops. 

CD Mayee, President, South Asia Biotechnology Centre says, fears over GM crops are overblown. Bt cotton produced no safety and environment concerns. We are already importing and consuming GM oil, he says adding that testing of GM mustard has been extensive. 

GM crops should be introduced in the country only after critical scientific evaluation of their benefits and safety. At present, there is a difference of opinion within the community of experts on their safety. Against this backdrop, bringing about a consensus and earning the trust of all the stakeholders involved will be crucial if the authorities are keen on the widespread adoption of GM crops. 

First Published: Oct 28 2022 | 07:00 AM IST

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