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A stealth attack via the humble mustard? We need to be cautious

The writer of this article flags insidious attempts by some multinational organisations to introduce genetically modified crops and genetic engineering and ultimately gain control over India’s farmers and its agriculture-dominated economy

Of late, there has been constant lobbying by powerful corporate groups for the introduction of GM (genetically modified) crops and technology in India. The GM and GE (genetic engineering) technologies in food and farming promoted by these bodies have been exposed by experts as being extremely harmful for health. Various groups working for the protection of farmers and farming, health and environment have been opposing these powerful corporate lobbies.

Unfortunately, the strong GM lobby led by some of the biggest corporate interests have tried to get over the objections of distinguished scientists using the support of influential political leaders in rich and powerful countries. These countries try to exert pressure on nations in the global south to favour GM technology. Multinationals have already succeeded in dominating the critical seeds sector to a considerable extent, and if they succeed in spreading GM technology, particularly in important countries like India, it will be difficult to stop them from realizing their objective of dominating the world food and farming system, with disastrous results for humanity, environment and biodiversity.

The late Pushpa M. Bhargava, senior scientist, founder of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, vice-chairperson of the National Knowledge Commission in India, and a Supreme Court-appointed observer in the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, had sounded a warning about the situation. He said, “There are over 500 research publications by scientists of indisputable integrity, who have no conflict of interest, that establish harmful effects of GM crops on human, animal and plant health, and on the environment and biodiversity. …On the other hand, virtually every paper supporting GM crops is by scientists who have a declared conflict of interest or whose credibility and integrity can be doubted.”

In a review of recent trends titled Food Without Choice (published in the Tribune) Prof Bhargava drew attention to the “attempt by a small but powerful minority to propagate genetically modified crops to serve their interests and those of multinational corporations (read the US), the bureaucracy, the political setup and a few unprincipled and unethical scientists and technologists who can be used as tools.” He also warned that “The ultimate goal of this attempt in India, of which the leader is Monsanto, is to obtain control over Indian agriculture and thus food production. With 60 per cent of our population engaged in agriculture and living in villages, this would essentially mean not only a control over our food security but also over our farmer security, agricultural security and security of the rural sector.”

Other eminent scientists in various parts of world have echoed this stand. A group of eminent scientists under the Independent Science Panel (ISP) have said that “GM crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits and are posing escalating problems on the farm. …Most important of all, GM crops have not been proven safe. On the contrary, sufficient evidence has emerged to raise serious safety concerns, that if ignored could result in irreversible damage to health and the environment. GM crops should be firmly rejected now.” (The ISP is a panel of scientists from many disciplines and countries, committed to the promotion of science for public good.)

Seen in this context, the recent renewed attempts to introduce genetically modified varieties of mustard (GM Mustard) assumes special significance. The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), India’s regulator for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), has reportedly recommended the “environmental release of mustard hybrid DMH-11 for seed production and testing” before commercial release. (The only GM crop grown in India so far is cotton and this has been very controversial.)

While all GM crops, specially GM food crops, are dangerous, this is particularly true of oilseed crops, including mustard. This is because oilseeds provide edible oils which are used in preparing almost all our cooked meals. In addition, mustard has important medicinal uses in India. Its leaves are consumed directly as food and its oilcake is widely fed to dairy animals.

India is particularly well-endowed with high nutrition value oilseeds including groundnuts, mustard and sesame, which fit in well with local crop rotations and soil conditions in various parts of country. Several of these oilseeds have important medicinal value. Past experience shows that efforts to make the country self-reliant in edible oil based on traditional oilseeds have been quite successful. However, the pressure of powerful business interests and multinational companies are influencing the favouring of an oilseeds development path based on GM crops and palm oil trees despite well-documented environmental, safety and health hazards of this path.

The GEAC on modified mustard has been criticized by activists and expert groups The Coalition for GM Free India, which represents several groups committed to agro-ecology and safe, healthy food, said, “This compromises bio-safety in serious and objectionable ways, and we ask the government not to move forward in allowing this dangerous herbicide tolerant food crop in India.”

Kavitha Kuruganti of ASHA, a leading agro-ecology group, has questioned claims of higher yield by the promoters of this GM crop. Aruna Rodrigues, a leading petitioner in the Supreme Court on bio-safety, GMOs and related issues, has raised serious questions about the way in which yield comparisons have been made. It appears that several centres of fact manipulation have been at work to facilitate this GM crop. The Swadeshi Jagran Manch, a group advocating self-reliance, which is close to the present government in India, has also condemned the repeated attempts to bring in GM Mustard despite the widespread opposition of people.

This should also be seen in the context of some wider objections raised recently regarding promoters of GM crops. As Mute Schimpf, food campaigner at Friends of the Earth, Europe, says, “Big biotech’s strategy is to apply for wide patents that would also cover plants which naturally present the same genetic characteristics as the GMOs they engineered. They will be lining their pockets from farmers and plant breeders, who in turn will have a restricted access to what they grow and work with.” It seems the great gene robbery is continuing and in fact worsening.

The enormously powerful GMO multinationals have also tried to introduce confusion and uncertainty by coming up with the concept of gene-edited crops, claiming that these should not be subject to the same restrictions as GM crops. However, in July 2018 the highest court in Europe ruled that gene-edited crops should be subject to the same strict rules and regulations as GM crops. Gene editing allows researchers to add, delete or modify an organism’s genome. The European Court has said that any crops edited using CRISPR or other gene-editing techniques must abide by the same laws restricting the use of GMOs.

Welcoming the court verdict Franziska Achterberg, Greenpeace EU’s food policy director, said, “Releasing these new GMOs into the environment without proper safety measures is illegal and irresponsible, particularly given that gene editing can lead to unintended side-effects… The European Commission and the European governments must now ensure that all new GMOs are fully tested and labelled, and that any field trials are brought under GMO rules.”

A lot of caution is called for in India, as powerful interests are promoting the introduction of GM food crops and they are also trying to use gene-editing as a means of getting approval. Recent efforts to promote gene-edited crops and GM Mustard are examples of how several multinational companies are attaching huge importance to invading India with their sinister technologies, using the support of local scientists and other collaborators. These are not issues relating to just mustard or brinjal or cotton. The wider implications of what the forces are trying to achieve should not be lost on us, and hence our opposition should be more determined and united.

Note: The writer is honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food, Planet in Peril and 14 Crucial Questions on GM Crops and its Hindi version.)

November 2022