Be scientific: on taking a call on GM mustard’s usage

On GM mustard for farms, the Centre must privilege reason over politics in taking the call

With the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, an Environment Ministry body that evaluates genetically modified crops, approving transgenic mustard for environmental release, a key hurdle remains before farmers can cultivate it: Environment Minister Anil Dave’s approval, under a procedure set down by the UPA government. In 2009 the GEAC approved Bt brinjal, developed by Mahyco and the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, for commercial release. As Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh overruled the GEAC clearance in 2010 and changed its status from an approval committee to an ‘appraisal’ committee. The issue before Mr. Dave is this: go by the expert findings of the GEAC and decide the issue on scientific merits, or opt for a replay of the Bt brinjal case. Broadly, the then government’s exceptionalism on Bt brinjal was framed along these lines: it was an edible substance unlike Bt cotton; long-term studies may be required to check its safety and environmental impact; it involved technology developed by the multinational Monsanto (which had an indirect stake in Mahyco). On the other hand, GM mustard (DMH-11) was developed by a team of scientists at Delhi University led by former vice-chancellor Deepak Pental under a government-funded project.

In essence, it uses three genes from soil bacterium that makes self-pollinating plants such as mustard amenable to hybridisation. This means local crop developers have the equivalent of a platform technology to more easily develop versions of mustard with custom traits such as higher oil content and pest resistance. It has also gone through safety and toxicity tests (on mice) prescribed by the regulator, but this is unlikely to convince opponents of GM technology. Many of them are opposed to the commercial release of any form of transgenic plants; they fear that introducing genes from soil bacterium or other forms of animal life into plants will amount to playing with the natural order of plant life. Proponents of GM crops say plants and animals are constantly swapping bacterial genes with air, soil and water, and also that the only way of determining if a gene can produce proteins toxic to humans is to subject it to a systematic testing process. Years of field tests on transgenic corn, soyabean and brinjal in other countries have shown no health risks that vary with their non-GM versions. The concern that DMH-11 employs a gene that will compel farmers to use specific herbicides and be dependent on one or two companies deserves serious attention. However, these are matters for the government, regulators, labour markets and the courts to decide. Farmers need technology, new knowledge and governmental support to get the best out of their seeds. Successive governments have failed to move on the draft National Biotechnology Regulatory Bill, 2008 that would enable a biotechnology regulator to take shape. Sans such legislation, issues to be decided on the basis of science will be at the mercy of political expediency.

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