Widespread opposition to the commercial introduction of genetically modified (GM) mustard has led to the postponement of a final decision on the highly controversial issue. Several powerful interests had planned that approval for GM mustard should be obtained at a meeting of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee held last Friday at Delhi. This plan did not succeed due to the huge protest mobilized by farmers and social activists, supported by several prestigious scientists who signed statements supporting objections to the approval for GM mustard. These protests which are a strong point of India&’s democracy were fortified by the support of some state governments such as those of Delhi and Bihar.

However the many-sided threats posed by GM food crops have not been met; the matter has only been postponed till a final decision is taken by the government. What became amply clear as this drama unfolded in Delhi was that the introduction of GM food crops has very high levels of support in government. The only saving grace is the opposition still being mounted by one part of the multifaceted Sangh Parivar. This opposition is being offered now only by the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, while other constituents of the Sangh Parivar have conveniently forgotten all their promises of environment protection. How long the Swadeshi Jagran Manch can continue its opposition remains to be seen.

It was indeed amazing and frightening to see the extent to which some Union Ministers and the Niti Ayog extended support to GM food crops ignoring the massive evidence against the threats to agriculture, environment and health. So far GM technology has been confined to the cotton crop and even then multiple hazards from Bt Cotton have become evident. Extension of GM technology to food crops will be several times more hazardous for health.

It is also clear that GM mustard is being used as a Trojan horse to gain entry for other GM food crops. This is evident from the various efforts that have been made in the past for the introduction of GM technology in the context of several other crops including corn, brinjal and rice to name just a few.

All over the world the controversy over genetically engineered (GE) food and genetically modified (GM) crops, also called genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is heating up as more and more evidence becomes available on their extremely serious hazards. These warnings have the support of some of the world&’s most eminent and well-qualified independent scientists and experts.

Recently Prof. Pushpa M. Bhargava, founder Director of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad and one of the experts in this field presented a significant critique of GM crops. In this he stated that (i) there are over 500 research publications by scientists of indisputable integrity, who have no conflict of interest, that establish the harmful effects of GM crops on human, animal and plant health, and on environment and bio-diversity, (ii) Ninety per cent of the member-countries of the United Nations, including almost all countries of Europe, haven’t permitted GM food crops or unlabelled GM food, (iii) In the United States, where GM food (such as corn and soya) has been consumed for over 15 years, there has been a continuous rise in the incidence of disorders of the gastrointestinal tract. While this does not establish a cause and effect relationship, it does not rule out this possibility.

Michael Antoniou, molecular geneticist associated with King&’s College, London, says, “If the kind of detrimental effects seen in animals fed GM food were observed in a clinical setting, the use of the product would have been halted and further research initiated to determine the cause and find possible solutions. However, what we find repeatedly in the case of GM food is that both governments and industry plough on ahead with the development, endorsement, and marketing (of) GM foods despite the warnings of potential ill health from animal feeding studies, as if nothing has happened. This is to the point where governments and industry even seem to ignore the results of their own research!”

Due to the threat of contamination, it is difficult for normal crops or organic crops to remain free from the impact of GM crops once these have been released. As worldwide concern for food safety grows, it is likely that there will be increasing demand for organically grown crops and crops which are not contaminated by GM crops. Therefore we will be surrendering premium world markets if we allow our crops to be contaminated. This is why organizations like those of rice exporters have also got involved in the campaigns against GM crops. Star Link (corn engineered to contain a Bt toxin pesticide) was planted on less than 0.5 per cent of US corn acreage, but its recall cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and even then the recall was not entirely successful. 

One serious issue is that GM crop technology is heavily centralized in just a few multinational companies and their subsidiaries. These MNCs have poured in billions of dollars for the propagation of GM crops as these can provide them the means of controlling food and agriculture at the world level. A huge country like India with its millions of farmers is of the greatest importance in their plans to spread GM crops.

Corruption also enables MNCs to achieve quick results. People wonder why there has been a rapid spread of GM crops in the USA, even though several scientists (in addition to farmers and activists) have opposed GMOs there as well. An idea of the various forces responsible for this can be had from a  complaint the US Securities and Exchange Commission had filed in US courts stating that a leading GMO company had bribed 140 officials between 1997-2000 to obtain environmental clearances for its products. The company admitted this charge and paid a penalty of $ 1.5 million.

Therefore it is a task of the greatest importance to protect the interests of India&’s agriculture, environment and health from the onslaught of GM food crops.

The writer is a free-lance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements.