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As Modi govt ponders GM mustard crop rollout, scientists warn that India could lose her agricultural independence

On Monday, the Centre told the Supreme Court that it will take the final call on the rollout of genetically modified (GM) mustard crop in September.

Last week, the apex court told the government to inform it if GM crops were detrimental to the health of humans and animals.

The ball is now squarely in the hands of the Centre and more specifically, members of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) — one of whom is appointed by the Supreme Court, the rest are appointed by the environment ministry — which regulates the testing and introduction of GM crops.

But the Ministry of Environment sub-committee has already issued a report declaring GM mustard safe and claiming it does not raise any public health concerns. The environment ministry reinforced these findings by submitting an affidavit stating the same to the

However, environmentalists are far from satisfied. They are demanding the environment ministry make all documents on this study available.

Dr Pushpa M Bhargava, India’s premier geneticist, who was appointed to the GEAC by the apex court, has warned that opening the door to GM crops at the macro level could prove disastrous. “Our agriculture will be in the hands of multinational companies,” he warns. “We will lose our independence.”

Bhargava has also casting doubts over the sub-committee’s findings. Bhargava said, “My impression of the Assessment of Food and Environmental Safety Report (of the environment ministry) is that most of the important conclusions have been drawn from insufficient data and inadequate experimentation.”

At the heart of the controversy lies the transgenic crop, Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11), developed by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants, University of Delhi.

Some scientists from the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS), which comprises 625 fellows, have endorsed the GEAC decision and dashed off a letter to the PMO stating that the government must quickly implement this decision as it would help lift farmers out of poverty by 2022.

In their letter, NAAS scientists reportedly said: “We are aware of the massive negative propaganda against GM crops by activists who are causing serious damage to the future of Indian agriculture.” The scientists claimed they were writing on behalf of their NAAS brethren.

Scientists sound alarm

However, others have insisted that more data must be provided by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants before such a crucial decision — that can affect the livelihoods of millions of farmers — can be taken. They argue that GM mustard could end up destroying our many varieties of swadeshi mustard.

Dr Panjab Singh, a senior NAAS member, also wrote to the PMO. He said he was not even informed of the NAAS meet and claimed there was no information available about how many members were present when the scientists took the crucial decision of writing the letter.

Singh stated in his letter that even as the yield of Bt cotton has stagnated since 2007, its failure is being converted into a great success. He added that the yield has dropped below 500 kilogram per hectare in the past three years.

Singh added in his letter: “What is even more alarming is the grave regulatory exclusions and false entries that must void these trials. Yet, they were not only accepted but justified for commercial approval based on a false claim of superior yield performance.”

Singh was part of a five-member technical evaluation committee — appointed by the apex court — which submitted a report in 2012 advising that GM crops be banned. “I stand by that report,” Singh says. “Every genetically modified organism must prove it is needed after satisfying all the relevant criterion of yield and trait superiority.” He further added that the risks must be assessed by independent experts,

Professor PC Kesavan, head of JNU’s School of Life Sciences, is equally perturbed by what he calls the “unacceptable levels of distortion of scientific facts to support the release of GM Mustard DMH-11.”

A fraud on the nation, some say

Which is precisely the point scientist and environmentalist Dr Vandana Shiva made in May. In an interview with Firstpost, she condemned the GEAC decision and expressed surprise that it had given approval to GM mustard — which had been rejected in 2002 — and stated that the Bayer-Monsanto GM mustard has a lower yield compared to non-genetically modified organism (GMO).

“A great fraud is being perpetuated on the country that GM mustard would increase yield,” she said. “The truth is that GMO mustard is herbicide-resistant compared to Bayer’s herbicide glufosinate, which is a neurotoxin.” She added that resistance across India must intensify to “the hijack of our food by Monsanto and Bayer.”

A similar concern was voiced by botanist Pushpa Amarnath. “I’m very concerned about the implications of GM crops. I realise that this GM mustard — with a public sector face — opens the door for other GMOs in the pipeline. A herbicide-tolerant crop will mean more chemical residue for consumers, and in the case of glufosinate weedicide, it is a known neurotoxin and a reproductive toxin,” Pushpa said.

Advocate Prashant Bhushan, who will be arguing the case before the Supreme Court, points says that if GM mustard is introduced, it will “change our mustard at the molecular level with the toxicity remaining in perpetuity.”

Bhushan says India has 9720 accessions of mustard in one gene bank located the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources. “If GM crop is introduced, contamination of this vast gene back is inevitable. Even more shocking is that all scientific evidence shows that our mustard hybrids provide a 25 to 30 percent higher yield to GM mustard. Yet the government wants to go ahead,” Bhushan says.

Some say the most convincing argument against GM crops comes from French molecular biologist Dr Gilles-Éric Séralini and his team, who fed Monsanto’s Round UP resistant NK603 maize and herbicide Round Up to 200 rats over a two-year lifespan. The team claimed that a majority of rats developed liver and kidney diseases and mammary tumours. The study was initially withdrawn and later republished, however critics claim that it is still flawed.

Séralini, on a visit to India, told Firstpost: “Our study is the first to be carried out on lab rodents over their normal lifespan, as opposed to the usual 90 days. Other studies have tested pesticides on rodents for just a few months. BT corn is being fed to animals, including pigs and cows, which are subsequently killed for meat. So we do not have a chance to know exactly what impact these products are having on these animals.”

“Our study showed these foods are hidden poison. Ten kilos of petroleum is required to produce one kilo of food. These GM crops are being made out of pesticides which are known to be kidney and liver disruptors,” Séralini added.

Most of the mustard producing states, including Harayana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh oppose the rollout of GM mustard. Millions of mustard growing farmers across the country are eagerly watching the Supreme Court hearings. After all, their livelihood is at stake.

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