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  • It's mustard, this time
    The Environment Ministry in New Delhi recently decided to ‘defer’ approval for GM mustard seeds. Devinder Sharma on the latest controversy in GM related clearances.
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    November 2002 : If the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Ministry of Environment & Forests has its way, the next time you eat your favourite sarson ka saag or enjoy the delicacy of sambar, you will not know whether these are safe for your health. Such are the potential dangers of the industrial prescriptions for the food menu that the gullible and ignorant consumer will never get to know what caused the ailment.

    Seven months after it gave a nod for sale of genetically modified seed of Bt cotton and that too under dubious circumstances without adequate tests, the GEAC is now ready to grant commercial approval to a genetically modified mustard – the first genetically engineered food crop with a few alien genes to be released in India. The GEACs decision to ‘defer’ the approval for the time being is merely to buy time and escape the fury of public opinion.

    At the heart of the controversy is the genetically modified mustard developed by the Pro-Agro Seeds India Private Limited, the Indian arm of the multinational Aventis with PGS, a Belgian company. This GM mustard is claimed to be resistant to glufosinate, a broad-spectrum herbicide, and the company claims that the gene modification will help increase mustard productivity by 20-25 per cent.

    Initially, the seed manufacturers had dovetailed pesticides and fertilisers with the sale of improved seeds. Now, the companies are incorporating the genetic character for herbicide-tolerance that in reality helps increase the sale of its own brand of chemicals. Numerous studies have shown that the usage of the chemical actually increases in herbicide-tolerant plants thereby negating the industry’s claim that it is producing crops that require less pesticides and therefore do less harm to the environment.

    Pro-Agro has developed this genetically modified mustard that resists glufosinate, its own brand of herbicide. So, in reality Pro-Agro will kill two birds with one stone -- sell the GM seed as well as the herbicide. For the simple reason that if you don't use glufosinate you will not be able to control the weeds. Farmers buying GM seeds will now be left with a Hobson’s choice to also purchase Pro-Agro’s herbicide. Thanks to GEAC, GM mustard will ensure ‘profit security’ for the company. Pro-Agro denies this, saying that glufosinate is not registered for use on mustard. But in reality, the herbicide is already approved for tea gardens and can easily find its way into mustard fields.

    Notwithstanding the excitement that the GEAC has over the development of a genetically modified mustard, the fact remains that these alien genes in mustard, which is an important food crop in India, provides no advantages to the consumers. On the other hand, it comes laced with all kinds of potential dangers for the people that the committee wants to gloss over. Surprisingly, the average citizen, who uses mustard for various purposes, including its common use as edible oil, green and leafy vegetables, for body and hair massage and for fodder purposes, are not even being consulted.

    GM mustard is being developed to increase productivity of mustard to meet the ever-growing demand of edible oils in the country. This is contradictory to government’s own policy of opening up the edible oil sector to import of cheaper oils. Strange that government’s policies are actually aimed at destroying the gains of the Technology Mission on Oilseeds launched by the Late Rajiv Gandhi in 1985. The doubling of oilseeds production during 1985-1993 had enabled the country to avoid the humiliating dependence on import of oil costing the exchequer annually Rs 1,500 crore to Rs 3,000 crore.

    From 11 million tones in 1986-87, oilseeds production had zoomed to 22 million tones by 1994-95, India had moved from being a net importer of oilseeds to a net exporter, with only negligible imports. But then began the dramatic turnaround, which destroyed the strong foundations of oilseeds self-sufficiency. India deliberately began lowering the import duties enabling the cheaper edible oils to flow in. India now imports on an average five million tones of edible oils, roughly 50 per cent of its domestic requirement, costing the state exchequer more than Rs 12,000 crore. If it is serious in increasing production of edible oils, the first step is to stop the unwanted imports.

    The government’s policy therefore is very clear: help sustain farmers outside the country. Cheaper imports help private companies in edible oil exporting countries and the introduction of genetically engineered crops too helps private seed companies. Safeguard for farmers by way of procurement and assured prices are being slowly dismantled to enable the corporate sector to move in and push the farming communities out of agriculture.

    In the past four years, with the Eurpopean Union’s moratorium on new GM crops and its reluctance to buy GM food, the grindingly slow, impossibly twisting European road to legal acceptance of the crops gets ever more bogged down. The companies claim they have lost US $12 billion of sales in the past four years, and the commission is now coming under mounting pressure from impatient US trade officials. With EU still holding on to the moratorium, the focus has shifted to countries like India to open up to GM foods and crops and thereby add to the multitude of problems that the farmers are already confronted with.

    In Canada, scientists have found that its related species of engineered canola (rapeseed) has become an uncontrollable weed. There are at least three ‘superweeds’ that have already come up in canola and considering the small farm size and the diversity available in India, the probability of such ‘superweeds’ developing is much greater. Scientific studies also show that genetically engineered crops can cause insecticides to build up in soils, cause food chain effects, transfer genes to wild relatives, and contaminate natural crops. Says Martin Entz, professor of Agronomy at the University of Manitoba (Canada): “GM canola has, in fact, spread much more rapidly than we thought it would. It's absolutely impossible to control... It's been a great wake-up call about the side effects of these GM technologies."

    The threat posed by pollen from GM varieties blowing into organic fields is now seen in Europe as a potentially significant cost. Seed pollution, the so-called "pollution" from the GM crops has also led to a fierce debate in Canada after Monsanto successfully prosecuted a 70-year-old Canadian farmer for growing its crops without paying the usual fees to the company. The farmer, Percy Schmesier accepted that Monsanto's patented gene was present in his crop of oil-seed rape, which is known in America as canola. But Mr Schmeiser claimed that Monsanto's gene had got there by accident after being blown in from neighbouring fields.

    "Gene stacking" in GM crops is a major concern, more so for mustard/rapeseed. Stacking describes what happens when more than one GM trait is found in the same plant, because of cross-pollination in the field. The agronomic and ecological impacts of cumulative transgene stacking are poorly understood and this may lead to farmers using more herbicides... potentially resulting in increased damage to biodiversity. It can also lead to "the gradual development of weediness in native species". If a neighbouring farm also unknowingly used GM-contaminated seed, this would be an obvious way for stacking to occur.

    The genetically modified mustard is in reality a hybrid. And like any other hybrid, it requires to be cultivated under more intensive farming practices. At a time when sustainable farming and low-input agriculture is the buzzword, it is surprising that agricultural scientists continue to recommend crop varieties that will end up doing more harm to the environment and crop fields. GM mustard will require almost double the quantity of fertilizers and water thereby accentuating the sustainability barriers that the green revolution areas are already faced with. On the one hand the government is asking farmers in Punjab, Haryana and UP to diversify from the exhaustive wheat-rice rotation and on the other hand is recommending crops that do more damage to soil ecology and health, just to appease the industry.

    Health concerns include: allergenicity; gene transfer, especially of antibiotic-resistant genes, from GM foods to cells or bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract; and "outcrossing", or the movement of genes from GM plants into conventional crops, posing indirect threats to food safety and security. Strange that food additives like artificial sweetners are required to be subject to both long term animal and human volunteer trials prior to approval but not GM foods. Food additives, so it would appear from the British Food Standard's Agency's comments, have to undergo testing to establish possible damaging effects from long term exposure and the trials can take years. This is despite the fact that, unlike GM material, food additives do not have the same ability to spread themselves throughout the environment and food chain once created. Now we are learning that even these food additive tests aren't up to the job with health problems only becoming scientifically identified years after approval. But still we refuse to learn from experience.

    GM mustard can affect honey bees directly and indirectly through effecting flowering and pollen production. Protease inhibitors have proved to be detrimental to the longevity and behavior of bees. GM crops with protease inhibitors released for commercial production include potato, canola (rapeseed) and creeping bentgrass. Some scientists therefore think that the sound and logical approach would be to totally ban commercial production of GM crops modified with protease inhibitor genes to protect bees and to prevent long-term damage to the entire environment.

    The Royal Society of England has already asked for more tests to know the impact of GM food on infants and children. Dr Vivian Howard, a toxicologist at Liverpool University, recently told the BBC's World Business Review programme that there was a need to check if the new foods were toxic for infants and what other biological effects there might be. Dr Howard used the example of the thalidomide drug that was widely used in the 1960s before it was discovered to be dangerous. No such studies have been done globally, what to talk of India.

    Devinder Sharma
    November 2002

    Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst. Among his recent works include two books GATT to WTO: Seeds of Despair and In the Famine Trap