GM mustard, not a great idea

GM crop proponents are jubilant over the green signal given to genetically modified herbicide tolerant mustard (GM HT mustard). The government moved with alacrity and dispatched to eight locations several kgs of GM mustard seed that are with the crop developers.

In its oral orders, the Supreme Court Bench, which heard the matter on November 2, is reported to have instructed the government not to precipitate the matter and not to plant any GM mustard seed until the matter is heard. However, it appears that GM mustard has been planted near Bharatpur and Kanpur.

This push for GM mustard is happening on two claims primarily — that it will yield 25-30 per cent more; and that it is  not a herbicide tolerant crop. It is interesting that the reality underlying these two claims led to the three Environment Ministers before Bhupender Yadav treading with some caution.

The current Environment Minister is, however, throwing caution to the winds. The consequences would be major and irreversible, given that this is indeed a herbicide tolerant crop (one that is unaffected by high herbicide use) and that GM technology is a living, irreversible technology when released into the environment.

Manipulation of testing and data: It was in 2016 that public sector breeders, independent ecologists and others presented evidence to the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) that yield data of GM HT mustard is manipulated, and the testing itself was unscientific. In its testing, GM mustard hybrid DMH-11 was not compared with non-GM hybrids.

For hybrid trials, hybrid checks are essential, especially in the case of GM mustard hybrid, since it is claiming to be a  better hybridisation technology than non-GM hybridisation options that exist already for breeders/seed producers. It was not even tested against varieties that were designated as zonal and national checks in the ICAR system of testing, but were compared against varieties released long ago in India.

The comparators used for GM mustard testing violated ICAR protocols as well as the conditions under which permission was granted by gene technology regulator GEAC. Despite all of this, ICAR as well as GEAC allowed the crop developer to move forward in the regulatory pipeline.

Public spirited citizens also contended that yield data from already-bad testing was notched up by about 7.5 per cent by the Delhi University’s Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP) in what it submitted to the regulators, compared to the results actually obtained from few testing centres.

Compromising scientific integrity: DMH-11 outperformed the old varieties it was tested against, as the testing was done in a limited, unscientific manner.

In the ICAR system, testing before the release of a variety or hybrid is done in at least three locations in each zone, for at least three years. This was not followed too, in the case of DMH-11. However, in 2002 and 2003, GEAC put a firm lid on another GM mustard hybrid (Bayer’s subsidiary ProAgro) which had applied for environmental release. GEAC recorded that the testing was inadequate (in only four locations), and that yield data was showing too much variance, apart from taking cognisance of the fact that it was a HT crop, and that an edible crop requires careful decision-making.

Yield declines are a distinct possibility: Rather than yield increases, environmental release and large-scale adoption of GM mustard can result in yield declines. In a situation where India already plants higher-yielding varieties (45 per cent of its mustard land is used by hybrids, offered by private and public sectors), it is likely that DMH-11 will actually drag down the country’s yields. Further, spread of sterility trait will bring losses to farmers. Herbicide spray drift will also destroy neighbouring non-GM mustard, in India’s small landholdings, and cause more losses. GM mustard has nothing new to offer to farmers other than the risks of transgenic, HT technology.

Is GM mustard a herbicide tolerant crop?: No scientist worth the name can deny that the bar gene that exists in both parental lines, in DMH-11 and in any other new hybrids that will be created by ICAR using these parental lines, confers herbicide-tolerance. It is meaningless to say that herbicide tolerance trait will be useful only during seed production and, therefore, only seed producers can spray glufosinate on GM HT mustard crop, and that farmers are not permitted to do the same. In lakhs of hectares, illegal HT Bt cotton has been planted, and sales of unapproved GM seed and unapproved glyphosate do happen. Regulators of gene technologies as well as pesticides aren’t doing anything worthwhile to curb this. In a strange twist, instead of admitting its regulatory incapabilities in stopping the spread of illegal HT crop cultivation and stopping the irresponsible approval of GM mustard, GEAC has actually turned a blind eye to these aspects in its GM approval letter. After first approving a herbicide tolerant crop which has never been tested as a HT crop, it expects farmers not to use a deadly weed-killer on it.

The fact that GM mustard has been sought to be camouflaged as a hybridisation technology and not as a HT crop (which it very much is) implies that testing has never been done as a HT crop. The Supreme Court is expected to take cognisance of these irregularities. The independent experts of its Technical Expert Committee on GM have recommended a ban on HT crops. They have suggested a ban on GM in crops for which India is the centre of origin or diversity.

The writer is with Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA)

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