- Genetically Modified (GM) food crops are a contentious issue in India and the government is contemplating over allowing commercialisation of GM mustard crop.
- Illegal import of GM food products has emerged as a issue in absence of any governing rules.
- The biotechnology sector wants the country to adopt GM crops to ensure food security for the country. But environmentalists and activists feel GM crops are overrated, will harm interests of farmers, will impact the environment and yields higher than what is claimed by GM crops is already possible.
In February 2010, India imposed a moratorium on commercial cultivation of the genetically modified (GM) Brinjal crop till a consensus on the safety of transgenic crops was achieved. More than eight years later, the decision still remains elusive.
The debate over the safety and usefulness of GM crops has not changed over the years, but the focus has now shifted to the commercial production of another GM food crop – mustard.
GM mustard was cleared for commercial production in May 2017 by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), India’s regulator for transgenic products. However, it still awaits government clearance. Meanwhile, illegal import of food products containing GM ingredients continues into India given the lack of rules required to tackle the issue.
The controversy around GM crops is a long-standing one in India. Even though activists and environmentalists are of the view that the current NDA-led Union Government favours GM technology, the government has so far not given a go-ahead for the commercial production of GM crops in the country.
“The Modi government has been pushing GMO (GM organism) one way or the other. Field trials (of GM crops) are being cleared even though state governments don’t want GM technology. GEAC cleared GM mustard. We are witnessing large imports of live seeds and packaged foods from GM-producing countries. This has happened during the NDA regime,” said Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA).
Currently, India has no single official policy on GM crops and follows a case by case approval. Right now, Bt cotton is the only GM crop permitted to be commercially produced in India. It was the first GM crop of the country and was cleared for commercial cultivation in 2002. Since then, there has been a raging debate about the need for GM crops and its impact on health and environment.
Those who argue in favour of GM crops state that they can provide a potential solution to malnutrition problems and food security, while also helping in protecting the environment as they would minimise dependence on chemical herbicides and pesticides. But those who oppose, stress on the apprehensions regarding the safety of GM crops, especially related to human and animal health. They also reject claims that GM crops lead to higher yield and highlight the environmental degradation the GM crops cause.
In February 2018, the NDA government told the Parliament that the production of cotton in India has doubled since Bt cotton was introduced in 2002. However, civil society activists think otherwise.
A report, “GM crops and its impact on environment” by the standing committee of the Indian Parliament in August 2017 noted that civil society feels that the production of cotton in the country has increased largely due to factors like increase in area under cotton, significant increase in irrigation, fertile groundnut areas shifting to cotton, among others.
What is the controversy around GM mustard?
If GM mustard or Bt Brinjal is allowed for commercial production in India, it will become the first GM food crop in the country. It is significant, specially in the case of mustard, as it is a commonly used oilseed in India.
The current controversy is around the GM mustard variety developed by the Delhi University-based Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP). Though it received approval from GEAC in May 2017 it is yet to get a final green signal from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC).
Following the GEAC’s approval in May 2017, groups opposing GM crops threatened a nationwide stir in case the government cleared it. They galvanised support from across India to stall it and even filed a case in the Supreme Court. Since then, several groups of scientists, medical experts and farmers have written to the NDA government opposing clearance for the crop.
There is severe political opposition to it as well. Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu called GM food crops a risk to ecology, health and commerce. Other states like Delhi, Bihar, Kerala and Tamil Nadu have also openly spoken against the commercialisation of GM mustard.
But there is a section of scientists in support of GM crops as well. Scientists and experts from the biotechnology sector want India to take the path of GM crops. Last year, the Association of Biotech-Led Enterprises-Agriculture Group (ABLE-AG), a forum that represents India’s biotechnology sector, called those opposing GM as “anti-national” while accusing them of fear mongering to derail the indigenous scientific research.
The MoEFCC, however, is in no hurry to clear GM mustard, primarily for two reasons: first, there is a case pending in the Supreme Court of India about it and secondly, there is intense opposition to it from farmer groups, consumer bodies and pressure groups. For instance, Swadeshi Jagaran Manch (SJM), which is an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is opposing GM crops.
To soothe fears against GM mustard, the environment ministry had even come out with a detailed eight-page note titled “Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)”. The note claimed that GM mustard plants are as safe and nutritious as regular mustard.
The claim was no surprise to activists. They pointed out that transgenic crops are an integral part of the Indian government’s plans for pushing investment and growth in the biotechnology sector. It is also considered critical for boosting farm productivity in India.
The government in its Technology Vision 2035, released a couple of years ago, spoke about tailoring adoption of technologies like GM crops to suit social psyche.
“Some aspects of biotechnology have posed serious legal and ethical problems in recent years. Cloning, assisted reproduction, stem cells, organ transplants and GM crops have led to situations where extant laws have been found to be inadequate. While legal structure would have to be changed to meet the new exigencies, adoption of such technologies would have to be tailored to suit social psyche. In the absence of such strategy irreparable damage to the social fabric would ensue,” the vision document had noted.
In its recent meeting on March 21, GEAC noted that the application related to the environmental release of GM mustard was referred back to them for its re-examination following several representations both in support and against it.
“GEAC examined all the representations and reiterated that these representations have already been deliberated extensively while taking the decision in 133rd meeting of GEAC. After detailed discussion and keeping in view that the application has been referred back to GEAC for re-examination, the committee agreed that the applicant may be advised to undertake field demonstration in an area of 5 acres at 2-3 different locations subject to the conditions proposed in recommendations of Sub-committee on GM Mustard, accepted by GEAC in its 133rd meeting, for the purpose of generating additional data on effect of GM Mustard on honey bees and other pollinators and honey, and on soil microbial diversity,” noted the minutes of the GEAC’s meeting.
But Deepak Pental, who led the development of GM mustard at the CGMCP, is unhappy with the policy paralysis in government on the issue.
“The research was done by public funding. GEAC has already cleared it. Farmers are not getting enough productivity … other countries like China are growing hybrids and they have increased their productivity. We need a method to make good hybrids in mustard,” Pental said.
Activists on the other hand are not satisfied with the GEAC’s re-examination. “The GEAC has not shelved the clearance to the GM mustard project. In the March 2018 meeting, the GEAC went ahead and asked the project proponent to do limited studies to assess the impact of GM mustard crop on honey bees, soil microbial activity etc. This, in any case was one of the post commercial release condition recommended even earlier by GEAC. This does not constitute review of its decision – something that the government of India had asked it to take up. Instead, GEAC is asking those seeking clearance to provide a procedure for testing of their product,” said Kuruganti, who is also the co-convenor of the coalition for a GM-free India.
Criticising the regulator, she said that GEAC has abdicated its role with regard to GM food safety.
“Such a regulatory vacuum is there that India now has GM food products that are openly available in the Indian market, without any clearance,” she emphasised.
“I would say that the Modi government has certainly failed in what it promised in its manifesto that consumers will be safeguarded. But there are no great surprises there, in this failure. It has been only citizens’ alertness that has been putting pressure on regulators who are failing in their duty,” Kuruganti added.
Ashwani Mahajan, who is the national co-convener of the SJM, also came down heavily on the GEAC.
“GEAC’s decision does not stand unless it is signed by the environment minister. Whatever due consideration that should have done on its impact did not happen and the people who were opposing it were not heard by GEAC,” said Mahajan while rubbishing claims advocating the adoption of GM mustard.
“Developers of GM mustard claim that it will lead to increase in production. But we already have varieties that are giving much more yield than what is claimed will be given by GM mustard. Secondly, it is being said that it is developed in India but we are saying GM mustard has traits that are patented by international corporations. We asked for details from agreement about these patents but nobody explained it,” he said.
Mahajan stressed that there are all kinds of questions around GM whether it is about the science of GM technology, its regulatory mechanism or its impact on biodiversity and health.
“GM crops are nothing but a game of multinational companies,” he added.
Prior to assuming power in May 2014, the BJP in its manifesto had said that “GM foods will not be allowed without full scientific evaluation on its long-term effects on soil, production and biological impact on consumers”.
Is there any choice for consumers?
Another major issued that has gained the centre-stage is the easy availability of food products containing GM ingredients in India. Consumer groups point out that in the absence of any regulatory mechanism regarding labeling of such products, consumers are not able to make an informed choice and are being forced to consume such products.
“GM food is coming to India from different sources, illegally. One, as mentioned by Union Health Minister JP Nadda recently in Parliament, companies are illegally importing GM derived oils like canola and soyabean oil from multiple countries for many years. In addition, packaged food products are imported from other countries and sold openly in India mentioning it has GM ingredients,” said Rohit Parakh, coordinator of India For Safe Food.
For instance, Parakh said that he bought products from a store close to his home in Mumbai that explicitly mentioned that they are derived from GM ingredients.
“Bt cottonseed oil has made its way to food chain as well. Over the past few months, several complaints have been made to DGFT in the Ministry of Commerce and FSSAI but no action has been taken. The big risk is that in absence of proper long-term tests on the impact on health, the consequences might only be clear in long-term as has been the case with pesticides and cigarettes for instance,” he added.
Parakh also drew attention towards the recent draft regulation on Labelling and Packaging that the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, which is India’s nodal food regulator, came out with. The draft proposed that “only” products containing more than 5 percent GM ingredients will need to be labelled as GM.
“Though it is yet to be finalised, the draft text is scandalous. We have to remember that GM food is still illegal in India. We have to remember the 2015 statement by over 300 scientists and lawmakers around the world stating there is no scientific consensus on GM safety and more long-term tests for impact on health are required to be conducted. We want the GM threshold for unintentional presence to be kept at 0.01 percent only which is the Supreme Court threshold for GM contamination in a related case. Labs across the world can test up to that threshold as well,” he added.
Will farmers be impacted by GM crops?
Kuruganti stressed that the mass scale adoption of GM crops in India will put independence of farmers at risk.
“Agrobiodiversity will certainly get affected. But there is a larger issue. When farmers won’t have seeds in own hands, they will depend on external seed resources – companies – and thus there is a possibility of exclusive rights by those companies sooner or later. Those companies can change the rules of the game any day. Farmers will necessarily have to depend on companies making the whole farm sector extremely vulnerable. Availability of seed, its price, quality, timing, quantity – there are too many variables,” she explained.
Mahajan echoed Kuruganti’s apprehensions and said that “farmers are already stressed due to GM crops”.
“If one looks at all the places where farmer suicides are happening are the places where GM cotton is being cultivated. For instance, Vidarbha (in Maharashtra) is one such place. All people supporting GM cotton are one way or other connected to multinational companies,” he said.
He, however, appreciated the NDA government for not allowing commercialisation of GM mustard.
Impact on environment
Activists and experts opposing GM crops feel that it is not just about the disturbance to agro-biodiversity but also about their impact on the environment.
“It is instead a larger question of environmental implications of GM crops which are often classified as ‘unintended impacts’. For instance, when honey bees or other pollinators are impacted, it is about the larger issue of the environment. It is about an ecosystem impact,” said Kuruganti.
“There are direct environmental concerns. If we look at South America for instance, GM soya invasion has actually led to deforestation in the Amazon. It is about a particular paradigm that also causes loss of biodiversity and environmental degradation,” she added.
In a recent report titled, “Three decades of experience with genetically engineered crops: way forward in the Indian context”, the authors M. S. Swaminathan and P. C. Kesavan point out today there is substantial evidence that ‘organic’ agriculture and its modified version of ‘green agriculture’ could provide consistently high yields over long periods of time.
“Genetic engineering has created a false impression on the minds of young students in the past two to three decades that modern biotechnology can solve all the present and future problems. Unfortunately, it also led to increasing neglect of the biodiversity conservation,” said the authors in their report while adding that “another issue of deep concern regarding genetically engineered crops is the health and environmental safety.”
They also observed that “India does not have an authentic and independent food safety evaluation system for genetically engineered crops”.
“What happens at this time is that the developers of transgenic crops are also the ones to provide biosafety data which are simply accepted by the GEAC. The Department of Biotechnology of the Government of India should lead and support food safety evaluation of all foods especially the genetically-engineered crops,” they suggested.
They argued that the genetically engineered crops should be avoided as these are now known to produce “unintended effects” and moreover, these are neither pro-nature, nor pro-poor or pro-women.
They stated that GM crops would need to be carefully studied from the point of view of nutritional impact and biosafety.
The parliamentary panel had also pulled up the MoEFCC for moving in haste on commercialisation of GM crops. It had recommended that the government should thoroughly examine the impact of GM crops on the environment before taking a final decision on the issue.
Will India bite the bullet?
A senior officer of the MoEFCC said that the government may not take a final call on GM mustard due to upcoming 2019 elections as it is a political issue.
It is learnt that the government is apprehensive about the backlash it could face from farmers and groups like SJM.
In February 2018, the MoEFCC had requested the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) to stop the import of GM soybean for food or feed without GEAC’s approval. It was a result of a complaint regarding the illegal/unauthorised import of GM soybean into India from countries like the United States and Ukraine (where cultivated soybean is mostly GM soybean).
However, last week, India’s environment minister Harsh Vardhan clarified that the government has not shelved the decision on clearance to GM mustard. He stated that the ministry is carefully studying the issue and examining every possible aspect.
Even as the debate is on about GM mustard, farmers from several states have claimed to have achieved superior yields by growing traditional mustard varieties using a new method of cultivation.
Meanwhile, Parakh said that they also want food products to start labeling which pesticides have been used on their ingredients.
“Isn’t it ironic that organic food products need so many certifications but people who are putting pesticides in food products don’t need to do any such thing while labeling?” he questioned.