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Messing with mustard

Messing with mustard

Tushar Chakraborty |

The adoption of hi-tech genetically modified GM crops increased dramatically in the first decade of its introduction but it was handicapped by a very narrow base and uncalculated risks. With unfulfilled promises and a tarnished image it is now facing a reversal in its winning turf.

While in the USA states such as Vermont passed laws forcing food manufacturers to label products having GM ingredients with a symbol or code a recalcitrant US federal government agreed in principle to this demand but passed a law to stall such easy demarcation. This federal law has got a new name — DARK Denying Americans the Right to Know Act. It is not the best time for agribusiness in America.

Scientific evidence and signs of adverse impact of GM crops are building up rapidly rendering the future of GM food doubtful. More than 98 per cent of GM plants grown in the world today are pesticide plants which either produce pesticides such as Bt toxin or require exposure to herbicides — potential cancer causing agents. Moreover the advent of new technology has made existing GMOs crude and obsolete. Once introduced there is no way to completely get rid of GMOs from the biosphere.

As a result of all these developments tectonic shifts are taking place in agribusiness holdings to reflect the turbulent market situation. Syngenta has been acquired by a Chinese chemical corporation while Du Pont and Dow have merged followed by a takeover of Monsanto by Bayer. To face the ensuing tough times ahead global agribusiness is now even more consolidated. It is not surprising that agro-ecologists have termed the Bayer-Monsanto takeover as a lsquo;marriage made in hellrsquo;.

But what has all this got to do with Indian farmers and consumers like us? Will there be any impact of these mergers and consolidation on Indian agriculture?

Actually the recent setback for GM foods in the West makes India more vulnerable to a fresh expansion bid by the agribusiness giants. This is an old game. In the name of technology transfer India is always treated as a clearing house for outdated technologies. The push for the commercial release of hybrid GM mustard seed DMH11 is a telltale sign of this sinister design.

As a hybrid seed technology this GM mustard male-sterility based strategy based on a toxin and its antidote is sloppy fragile by design and bound to fail — if practiced at all. It has also been crafted for herbicide tolerance as a selection marker which will promote spraying of herbicide.

So far India has been resisting promotion of herbicide use which wipes out livelihood for women farmhands who pull out weeds and use them as fodder. The only rationale behind introduction of DMH11 is to increase yield via hybrid vigour but this does not require GM traits. There are several non-GM hybrid varieties of mustard available in the market. Mustard production can be increased most efficiently by the government by giving incentives to farmers directly.

The fact is after all this tinkering DMH11 is still not a high-yielding trait. Its yield has been compared to an unrelated low-yielding variety of mustard instead of an identical non-GM one to prove its efficacy.

This is possibly the greatest fault the applicant is trying to hide. We must scrutinise the curious trajectory of GM hybrid mustard seed technology and the careful timing of its rapid clearance.nbsp;

However regulators are putting up obstacles to resist any such attempts. An unwritten lsquo;Darkrsquo; Act has been imposed in India as well. The bio-safety dossier of DMH11 was kept secret from the public violating the Right to Information Act until the Central Information Commission CIC stepped in and passed an order on 12 August 2016 asking the government to reveal the submitted bio-safety data. The CIC rebuked the government stating that it was done on purpose to block informed public discussion on this crucial and controversial issue.

The CIC said the information sought is of high public importance concerns public health and it should have been in the public domain from the beginning. Till date the government has not shared the data in a user-friendly manner.

In the name of public consultation it decided to keep copies of the data in New Delhi for just 30 days for interested people. This bio-safety data sharing window was closed on 5 October.

What a farce! Activists have demanded that the bio-safety data sharing and submission of questions be extended for a minimum of 120 days. And this must be followed by a public consultation in all mustard growing and mustard oil consuming states.

Among the four crops which are cultivated as GM crops oil seed canolarape seed is the weakest link. The reason is ease of horizontal gene flow from GM crops to similar non-GM nbsp;species. This quick GM spread is like an infection. It will be insane to encourage our small farmers to grow this GM mustard and contaminate our precious genetic resources.

This GM mustard is not a product to improve agriculture and health if it is designed as a public sector Trojan horse the main object of which is to force open the door for GM food production in India. Its main target is to end the Bt Brinjal moratorium and admit herbicide tolerant GM varieties in Indian agriculture. If permitted it will open the flood gates for the entry of other GM foods which are waiting in the wings.

One of the great triumphs of Indian democracy was the public consultation on Bt Brinjal organised by the Centre of Environmental Education CEE in 2010. It was attended by farmers scientists industry and concerned public.

Hundreds of questions were raised most of them still remain unanswered. Mustard as a food crop cooking oil body oil medicine and cultural icon is even more integrated with Indian social and cultural life than brinjal. Mustard fields are not only for human consumption they support honeybees as well. GM lobbyists should note that messing with mustard could be dangerous.

The writer is a molecular geneticist and science communicator.