Government-Monsanto (GM) seeds barred from commercial sale

Published: October 21, 2016 - 16:59 Updated: August 10, 2017 - 16:20

With the judiciary stepping in and intervening genetically modified mustard seeds receive a severe setback

With the Rashtriya Progressive Kisan Alliance (RPKA) sending a  letter to the Prime Minister demanding immediate introduction of genetically modified (GM) mustard in arid regions, the debate is becoming animated among farmer unions. Meanwhile, RSS affiliated Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) and Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) have come out in opposition to the government's plans to introduce the transgenic mustard in the open market.

The fate of GM Mustard crop developed by researchers of Delhi University still hangs in the balance as it is a policy issue which lies at the intersection between the judiciary, government and activists. While anti GMO activists continue their attack on the government’s claims of GM mustard being indigenous — calling it foreign — the Supreme Court extended the stay on the ban of commercial sale of the seeds till October 23.

The activists led by Aruna Rodrigues and advocate Prashant Bhushan are now demanding a 10 year moratorium for the Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH), and an extension of three months for scientists and farmers to analyse the report released by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) of Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change.

Modification of Mustard

The transgenic crop has been developed by a team led by former Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University Deepak Pental. The team has created a viable hybridisation system in mustard using GM technology. Hybridisation is done by crossing two genetically diverse plants from a single species. However, mustard lacks the natural hybridisation system as it has both the female (pistil) and male (stamen) reproductive organs within the plant, this makes it self pollinating and restricts hybridisation.

Researchers used ‘Barnase’ gene from a soil bacterium called Bacillus amyloliquefaciens. The bacterium impairs pollen production and makes its host male-sterile. This male-sterile plant is crossed with another gene, ‘Barstar’, that blocks the action of the ‘Barnase’ gene. The resultant holds both the foreign genes, and is a hybrid mustard plant.

Claims and Controversies

A subcommittee of the GEAC in August had said that DMH-11 was an effective hybrid and the presence of ‘barnase’ genes will not affect the nutritional quality of the mustard. Deepak Sharma of SJM talking to Hardnews said that “there has been little or no assessment of the environmental and health implications of this variety, the situation is completely opposite to that of BT cotton which was a cash crop and not a food crop.”

The government claims that it has been pushing for the commercial release of DMH-11 to increase the production of oilseeds and mustard within the country. With an estimated import of 11.96 million tonnes(MT) by 2016 end, India is the second largest importer of edible oil after China in the world. Officials in Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change indicated that they estimate a growth of about 28-30 percent following the use of transgenic mustard.  Kavita Kuruganti, Convenor, Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture said that, “there is no definitive proof that GM crops can enable better yield than the native variants of the same seed.” She further added that, “the claims by the government of an increase of over 25 percent in yield is not verified, as the GM hybrid was tested and compared to a 40 year old variant of the mustard seed which underperformed during trials.”

Another obstacle to the commercial release of the DMH-11 is that it is herbicide resistant. Activists and experts opine that, since the crop is herbicide resistant it casts a dark shadow on the future of lakhs of daily wage workers in the country, who are involved in removing weeds in rural areas.  

Mustard is a crop that has 60 lakh cultivators and around 5 lakh bee-keepers who are directly dependent on it. The use of altered variant of mustard will increase chemical usage in farms. The government's claims that the GM crops are widely used in America and Australia is largely flawed as most of these countries have large farms but low labour workforce, and therefore, are dependent on chemical use for removal of weeds from their cultivate directly. Meanwhile, India is a labour intensive nation and these small time works of removal of weeds from farms are a large source of employment for many in rural areas, that will vanish once chemical usage is promoted. Kavita said “the major downfall is that the herbicide tolerant quality will make weeds disappear, making it difficult for plants to retain the nitrogen content in the soil. Thereby, reducing the chances of practicing crop rotation on the same field.” 

Vested Interests

The government is now being accused of unwanted haste in pushing for the commercial sale of hybrid seeds. Experts say that this is a move that will largely benefit big corporate players like Monsanto/Bayers. Ananthoo of the Safe Food Alliance said “the transgenic mustard crop being touted by the government as an indigenous development is an eyewash, German companies had already filed a patent for a similar variety in 2002.” He further added “the research and the entire project was backed by the German conglomerate Bayer. Will Delhi University sell theses varieties once approved? No. Definitely, it will be a private party behind it most probably Bayer which will benefit the most”.

DMH-11 is facing the same battle as Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt) brinjal whose commercial release was put on hold indefinitely in 2009 following vigorous protests from activists, farmers and scientists. Activists have now launched a ‘Sarson Satyagrah’ campaign to create awareness among farmers and oppose the introduction of the transgenic hybrid in the Indian market.