Much Ado About Mustard: A Familiar Civil Society Debate Reemerges on GMOs


The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) in India met on August 11 this year to review a safety report by its sub-committee discussing genetically modified (GM) mustard crops and the possibility of introducing them to Indian soil. The Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 or DMH-11 is indigenously developed and, if implemented, would be the second GM crop to gain free approval for cultivation in the country. The GEAC has not granted full approval yet and instead was soliciting comment, feedback, and suggestions. The last day for submissions was October 5. With the deadline behind us, farmers, activists, and corporations alike now await a final decision.

The debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture has been raging in India for more than a decade now and it is important to understand its evolution on the eve of this decision. In 2002, Monsanto introduced BT cottonseeds to India, making them the first GM crops to be introduced into Indian soil. BT cottonseeds were supposed to have the ability to kill the bollworm, a pest that is particularly prone to attacking cotton plantations. BT cotton had to wage a continuous battle against such pests and eventually the progressive pest resistance that developed, but it also had to contend with the larger anti-GMO conversation, which propagated primarily through environmental activists who were concerned about the impact these seeds had over time. Additionally, farmers and farmers’ rights activists were concerned about the impact it had on the agricultural economy.

Some arguments against GMO crops emerge from environmental concerns. For instance, drought-resistance genes introduced into GM rubber, which was geared towards field trials in Kerala in 2010, was observed to have unwanted impacts on other traits of the plant including its yield and quality. Transgenic crops have been reportedly hard to evaluate under stress conditions thus complicating the case for drought-resistance.

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Several GM seeds also had terminator genes introduced by large seed corporations which prevented farmers from collecting seeds and using them for successive cultivation – and instead forced them to reinvest in an entirely new set of seeds. This took away the independence of farmers to cross-breed seeds as they pleased and mix crops, also leaving them more dependent than ever on large corporations like Monsanto.

When yields fell, this exacerbated their costs and did not help the already high rate of farmer suicide in the country due to yield and monsoon uncertainty, in addition to rising costs. Activist Vandana Shiva was particularly vocal in also calling out overstatements regarding the economic benefits of GMOs ahead of these field trials and also discussing the long-term health impacts.

Around the same time, the then-Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh placed a moratorium on the BT Brinjal (a type of transgenic aubergine identified by its local English name) after severe and continuous civil society agitations, and also granted state governments the power to veto transgenic crops’ field trials. The states of Bihar, Chhattisgarh, and Kerala have had particularly strong and growing “seed sovereignty” movements that emphasize organic seed culture. Bihar was among the first regions in the world to fully halt field tests and successive governments in Kerala have since reiterated a commitment to keeping the region “GMO free.”

In 2015, the debate once again came alive in the wake of GM mustard implementation. Here, additionally, criticism focused on the toxic herbicides that these plants required for sustenance and the uncertainty of their impact on the final product, including on quality and safety. In March 2016, India snipped the royalties paid by local firms to Monsanto and also capped its prices – pulling GM seeds introduced by large foreign corporations into a tighter regulatory environment. However, as indicated by a notification in May 2016, the government seemed to temporarily oscillate regarding this commitment to reduce royalties. This was ultimately shelved for a few months after widespread criticism and backlash. Subsequently, Monsanto withdrew its application for regulatory approval for their next generation of cottonseeds for sale in India, citing regulatory uncertainties and ongoing discussions.

Ahead of the August 11 meeting of the GEAC regarding DMH-11, the GM mustard discussion reemerged. ‘Sarson Satyagrahas’ (mustard protests) were held in different parts of the country by farmers’ groups and molecular scientists have re-invoked the arguments outlining the hazards of genetically engineered crops that paved the way for the BT brinjal (eggplant) moratorium. Several activists have made the case for non-transgenic hybrids that can boost oilseed productivity. Further, honey producers have joined these protests as a significant portion of honey production is linked to the mustard crop and the chemicals associated with GM mustard have potentially harmful effects on bees.

Activist Kavitha Kuruganti, a member of an alliance of 400 NGOs resisting the commercialization of GM mustard, has expressed her concerns regarding the GEAC not verifying data and put out a demand for the complete raw data ahead of the decision. Molecular biologist Pushpa M. Bhargava has gone on record to say that the implementation of GM mustard could be disastrous for Indian agriculture and has warned the government to take cognizance of civil society protests on this issue.

In many ways, as activists and other media have suggested, this is the BJP government’s BT brinjal (eggplant) movement. The way it addresses civil society concerns and furnishes information will have a key impact on the evidently still inconclusive debate over GMOs in Indian agriculture as a whole.

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