Music to ears of green groups: SJM’s missive to Environment Minister opposing govt nod to GM mustard

In a strong letter to the Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Bhupendra Yadav, SJM national co-convenor Dr Ashwani Mahajan trashed the claim of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) that the GM Mustard is Swadeshi and has been developed in India

Music to ears of green groups:  SJM’s missive to Environment Minister opposing govt nod to GM mustard

In what could be music to the ears of green groups opposing the government's  nod to GM mustard, the RSS-affiliate Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) has charged the government’s regulatory body for gene technologies with functioning in an “irresponsible fashion”.

In a strong letter to the Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Bhupendra Yadav, SJM national co-convenor Dr Ashwani Mahajan trashed the claim of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) that the GM Mustard is Swadeshi and has been developed in India.

Mahajan said that the GEAC has cleared a GM food crop for cultivation in farmers’ fields in India, “that too a herbicide tolerant mustard variety, after running the pretence of a review of GM mustard”.

Mahajan sought to bring to the minister’s notice that “nothing has changed” from May 2017 when GEAC’s green signal for this unsafe GM mustard had to be stopped by the Government of India, keeping in mind various concerns and serious issues pertaining to this GM mustard. Not a single additional test has been done, nor a single question has been answered scientifically about the safety or efficacy or need of this GM mustard, he said.

“To begin with, the claim that GM Mustard is Swadeshi and has been developed in India is completely untrue. We would like to bring to your kind notice that in 2002, Proagro Seed Company (Bayer’s subsidiary), applied for commercial approval for a similar construct that Prof. Pental and his team are now promoting as HT Mustard DMH 11. Bayer’s application at that point of time was turned down because the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) said that their field trials did not give evidence of superior yield.

“As is well known the hybridisation of GM Mustard is achieved by means of the two genes barnase and barstar, derived from a soil bacterium called Bacillus amyloliquefaciens. The bar-barstar-barnase gene is a patented technology of Bayer Crop Science. Bayer is not a swadeshi Company. How can a product patented in their name be termed as Swadeshi. The fact that Bayer owns the patent of the genes used in Prof. Pental’s Mustard has been deliberately concealed from the people of India.”

He said that another aspect that the SJM would like to highlight was the unsubstantiated and wrongly projected claim that GM mustard will increase domestic production and reduce our import dependence.

“The GM mustard has no yield advantage compared to Indigenous hybrids. Data from Rapeseed Mustard Research (DRMR), Bharatpur clearly shows that the claim of Prof. Deepak Pantel that his GM mustard would increase yield by 26 percent is deceptive and misleading as there are several existing hybrid varieties that outperform the transgenic variety DMH-11.

“In fact, for reasons best known to the developer, the existence of better performing non-GM hybrids from his own stable has been concealed and he has chosen to falsify the data by comparing the yield performance of GM mustard with some of very old varieties having lesser yield. Fact of the matter is that existing non-GM varieties of mustard give at least 25 percent more yield than what is claimed by Prof. Pental's GM mustard.”

The SJM co-convenor said, “We would also like to bring to your notice that the condition of royalty payment by the developer to Bayer has also been kept a secret. Not only that GMO Mustard is based on Bayer’s patented Barnase-barstar-barnase gene system for which royalty shall be paid, it is said to promote usage of Glufosinate, an herbicide from which Bayer will benefit the most through its existing brands. Therefore, it is evident beyond doubt that the nation would be seriously dependent upon MNC for usage of patents and import of herbicides causing greater outflow of valuable Foreign exchange from the country.”

It needs to be remembered that GM mustard has never been tested as a herbicide tolerant crop at all, while even the development of this glufosinate-tolerant crop was in violation of India’s pesticides regulations, Mahajan said.

The yield data was rigged and evidence about this has been shared with the regulators by alert citizens and experts. Importantly, major mustard-growing states of India were opposed to GM crops in general, and this particular GM mustard had not even allowed for field trials to take place, he noted.

“As you know, mustard is a very important crop in our agriculture and in our food chain. For lakhs of bee-keepers in the country, mustard crop is a source of livelihood, while mustard crop itself benefits from honeybees’ activity in terms of yield improvements. Mustard is eaten directly too in Indian cuisine and mustard oilseed cake is used in organic soil amendments. The fact that such a crop has been exploited for any genetic modification is in itself highly objectionable, and this has happened with DBT funding at that,” he said.

Mahajan also said that scientific experts who have looked into the biosafety data submitted by the crop developer in Delhi University have clearly pointed out that while GM mustard has not even been tested rigorously and adequately also given that it is a herbicide tolerant crop, in the tests that were indeed taken up in a limited fashion, the lack of safety of GM mustard to the environment and human health was clearly captured. There are also numerous other implications including on Indian Systems of Medicine.

“What is also important to note is that glufosinate is a dangerous herbicide, like glyphosate. It is irresponsible for the regulatory body to recommend environmental release, and then ask for testing to be done post-environmental release, knowing fully well that GM technology is a living technology, irreversible and uncontrollable once released into the environment.

For GEAC to say that the usage of any formulation of herbicide is not permitted for cultivation in the farmers’ fields under any situation is” ironical and objectionable”, given that our regulators have proven their failure to regulate, time and time again, when it comes to illegal herbicide GM crops in India, and illegal use of herbicide on the same when it comes HT Bt cotton with which glyphosate is being used on large tracts of land. Just because GEAC lists down in its Minutes of Meeting several conditions does not mean that the clearance is acceptable, especially when several basic issues have been glossed over in an unaccountable fashion, he said.

It’s notable that today India is exporting nearly 5 lakh crores of food products to the rest of the world. As our country has not allowed GM in food crops, non-GM tag on our exports helps us in fetching orders from European nations, where GM is banned. Moment, GM enters into our food crops, that non-GM tag would be lost and our country would lose on the export front. You will appreciate that our country is striving hard to increase export of agri products, to earn valuable foreign exchange, and more importantly raise farmers’ income.

Mahajan said the Swadeshi Jagran Manch has all along been opposing this dangerous and unneeded GM mustard being brought in through the backdoor as a ‘public sector’ GMO. It is because of our raising of the key issues of concern about this GM mustard that the then Union Environment Minister has kindly intervened and took the right decision of keeping in abeyance the regulatory clearance in its operationalisation and seeking a review. However, the regulatory body, predictably, did not take up any such review worth the name. The regulators are joining hands with GM crop developers and are time and again compromising the regulatory regime quite seriously, and they have done so with this GM mustard also.

“We are confident that as a person who has carefully studied the adverse impacts of GM crops and also published opinion pieces on the same in the past, you will intervene immediately in this matter, and ensure that no GM mustard seed is allowed to be planted, now or ever,” he added in his letter to the minister.

(SUBHASHIS MITTRA is a New Delhi-based Senior Journalist, Freelance Writer & Public Policy Analyst)

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