Collage - India GM Mustard

Amidst the desperate push by biotech lobbies to impose GM Mustard in India, Navdanya along with multiple civil society organizations is once again on the frontline to resist the GM Mustard.  A herbicide tolerant mustard called ‘Bayer’s trojan Horse’ if approved will become India’s first GM food crop which poses grave health and environmental risks, contamination of our germplasm in a centre of diversity as well as adverse impacts on farmers’ livelihoods.  The battle against commercialisation of DMH11- GM Mustard  in India intensified as it comes one step closer to approval. On May 11th, 2017 Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC),  India’s apex regulator for GMOs, approved the commercial cultivation of GM Mustard leaving the final decision to the Environment Minister Dr. Harshavardan. The opposition reached the gates of the environment ministry in May with a demonstration with hundreds of farmers and activists at the ministry’s Delhi office against the approval granted to the GM crop. India’s largest farmer’s unions have also written to the environmental minister asking him to reject the commercialisation of GM Mustard.

After hearing the opposition by multiple groups the then environment minister Anil Dave promised to take concerns against GM mustard on board in his decision for approval. However, after the sudden death of Mr. Anil Dave, the environment ministry is now headed by Dr. Harshavardhan who is also the minister of Science and Technology and whose ministry was one of the funders of GM Mustard development. In a clear conflict of interests scenario, he will now also be the decision maker in the approval.

Resistance to the corporate takeover is therefore growing also at a local level. While corporations and their lobbies such as ABLE India have upped the ante on the approval of GM Mustard, thanks to the resistance across the country, 5 key Indian states including Mustard growing states have now banned cultivation of GM Mustard. So far, Bihar, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Delhi governments have written to the Centre against GM mustard approval, and states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Odisha and West Bengal have stated that they will not allow GM mustard. Farmers in other states have also come out with a resolve to not cultivate this GM Mustard which is a threat to biodiversity, the health of our people and the health of our soils.

This is not the first time that Indian mustard is under threat. In 1998 India’s indigenous edible oils made from mustard, coconut, sesame, linseed and groundnut processed in artisanal cold-press mills were banned, using “food safety” as an excuse.The restrictions on import of soya oil were simultaneously removed. One million oil mills in villages were closed. And millions of tons of artificially cheap GMO soya oil continue to be dumped on India. During those days, women from the streets of Delhi joined forces with Navdanya and the National Women’s Alliance for Food Sovereignty (Mahila Anna Swaraj) to start the Sarson Satyagraha and succeeded in bringing back pure mustard oil.

In July 2015 Navdanya with farmers organisations gave a call to every citizen of India to join the nation wide resistance against GM Mustard (Civil Disobedience against GM Mustard) and protect our indigenous diversity of mustard. Since then, the Navdanya team has been on the ground across India mobilising farmers in Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, amongst others  on the dangers posed by GM crops and the use of herbicides like Glufosinate and Glyphosate.

Last year, over 124 farmers groups, scientists, lawyers and activists including Dr. Eric Seralini, Nicolas Hulot and Vandana Shiva joined Navdanya to organize an All India People’s Assembly against GM Mustard. While creating the resistance against the imposition of GM Mustard, it is important to save and propagate the indigenous diversity of Mustard, Navdanya thus has been working to distribute seeds of indigenous mustard throughout the country while working with farmers to practice ecological methods of agriculture with local varieties as well as festivals celebrating  indigenous mustard inviting citizens to join the civil disobedience.

The only GM crop cultivated in India is BT cotton and if approved GM Mustard will be the first GM food crop opening the floodgates of other GM food crops. In 2009, the GEAC had approved the cultivation of Bt. Brinjal (Eggplant), however the decision was overruled by the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh after an intense resistance by farmers organizations, environmentalists and civil society placing an indefinite moratorium on cultivation of BT Brinjal. The experience of Bt cotton cultivation over the past 15 years has exposed the hype about GM crops and the devastation on farmers livelihoods and biodiversity. The pests for which BT cotton was created have become resistant, over 97% of the cotton seed is now controlled by one company and pesticide use on farmers fields have gone up.

In 2015 campaigner Aruna Rodrigues petitioned the Supreme Court to stop the commercial release of GM Mustard where the Government of India had to give an assurance that the central government would not release GM Mustard without the approval of the court. Despite this, the government of India under the pressure of corporate lobbies seems to be on the verge of approving the commercial release of GM Mustard.

On June 11th, former cabinet secretary who was responsible for approving BT cotton warned against the possible approval of GM Mustard. “Had we been aware of the ill-effects of the Bt Cotton, we would never have approved it, said T.S.R. Subramanian, who had recommended the Genetically Modified (GM) variety of cotton for commercial cultivation as Textile Secretary in the 1990s.”

What is GM Mustard? and Why are farmers, scientists, environmentalists and civil society organizations opposing it?

The GM Mustard – Dhara Mustard Hybrid (DMH) 11 has been produced by a team of geneticists headed by Dr. Deepak Pental at the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants, University of Delhi in collaboration with Dairy Development Board and Department of Biotechnology. It is a herbicide tolerant plant developed by crossing an Indian breed Varuna with EH-2 an Eastern European breed using a combination of 3 genes  – barnase, barstar, bar derived from soil bacteria Bacillus amyloliquefaciens.

The barnase gene creates male sterility, the barstar gene line is fertility restorer. The third gene bar creates tolerance to glufosinate, a broad spectrum herbicide and a patented technology of Bayer Crop Science marketed worldwide as Liberty Link and Basta.  The Bar gene marks out GM crops from other non GM crops thus eliminating all non sterile plants with a glufosinate spray in order to create pollen free sterile GM plants. (Also read: “The Success of This GM Tech Depends on Numerous Unanswered Questions“, The Wire, 20 September 2016).

Proponents of GM Mustard have pushed it is an indigenous variety developed by an Indian public institution in order to quell cries by environmentalists against the corporate takeover of our food and agriculture but Navdanya as well as multiple campaigners and environmentalists have exposed it to be Bayer’s Trojan horse.

In 2002, Proagro Seed Company (now Bayer), applied for commercial approval for the same barnase-barstar-bar construct that Prof Pental and his team are now promoting as HT Mustard DMH 11 with the same claim of 20-30% increased yield. However, the application of Bayer was rejected with the committee deciding that the trials conducted by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) on this were not “conclusive”. Nor was the committee satisfied that health risks had been addressed. Moreover, as Navdanya has pointed out, the bar technology is a patented technology owned by Bayer and this raises serious questions of ownership as opposed to the public ownership as being claimed by its proponents.

False Claims of Higher Yields

Proponents of DMH-11 are pushing it with the claim of an increase in yields of 28-30% in comparison to other non GM varieties and thus reduce our annual import bill of Rs. 60,000 crores in edible oils. However, farmers organizations say that the DMH-11 variety has been compared against older varieties of mustard crop Varuna (1975) and Kranti (1982), whereas atleast 4 varieties of non GM hybrids have been shown to have higher productivity. Importantly, the government in its own reply to Supreme Court’s hearing a petition filed by the environmentalist Aruna Rodrigues seeking a ban on open field trials and the commercial release of GM mustard admitted, “No such claim has been made in any of the submitted documents that DMH 11 outperforms non-GMO hybrids. “

If we already have existing varieties that produce higher yields, why are we imposing this GM Mustard in the first place?

Navdanya and Aruna Rodrigues ask:

“Therefore, what is the Union of India’s point? Is this HT mustard being introduced because of its ability to just make hybrids? Given that it does not outperform our non-GMO hybrids, the argument collapses on its essential lack of science and reasoned thinking.”

Conflict of Interest, Lack of transparency and gaps in scientific evaluation

Since its introduction for approval, GM Mustard has been shrouded in secrecy. Activists have been demanding greater transparency and calling the government to put biosafety documents in the public domain. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee has been accused to be an undemocratic, opaque and unscientific body where deep conflict of interests prevail and where GM crop developers are an integral part of decision making.

The only report that has been put in the public domain is the “Assessment of Food and Environment Safety of GE Mustard” report. However, the agency didn’t share its full biosafety assessment of the GM mustard publicly online — contrary to the orders of the government’s Central Information Commission, which enforces rights to information. Instead, the GEAC allowed only a limited inspection of its assessment, at its office in Delhi. Calling the biosafety assessment a monumental fraud filled with scientific inaccuracies, Navdanya submitted a detailed critique on the gaps in the biosafety assessment report put out by the GEAC. Navdanya in its assessment raised twenty vital objections against the biosafety report pointing to key loopholes in the reports. The report lacks information and evidence on patents to improper and no feeding studies and blood analysis to herbicide tolerance traits (Illegal as per India’s laws) and further no socio-economic assessments have been carried out along with other health and biosafety tests.

Dr. Pushpa M Bhargava, a member of GEAC and a noted molecular biologist and Supreme Court appointee asked that “the government should put primary data and not just a review document in the public domain”. According to him, the biosafety review does not include the primary data to support the conclusions in the absence of secondary or toxic effects. “In the absence of primary data, it is not clear what is the basis of the conclusion that the GM mustard is safe,” he said. “The risks to health, environment and agriculture have not been evaluated even through those inadequate tests which were conducted at the time of Bt brinjal examination, though mustard is far more extensively grown and consumed than brinjal”.  

According to Rajshree Chandra, a biotechnology reports points out “ The AFES report only attests to the negligible toxicity and allergenicity of the three genes – bar-barstar-barnase – using mainly available bio-informatics databases. There is no independent study or cross- referencing of biosafety studies related to the use of glufosinate in the AFES report.”

More pertinently, as mustard is an oil crop, there is danger of mixing/contamination of oils from GM and non-GM crops. The critical policy issues concerning labelling, extraction and traceability need to be addressed well in advance of commercialisation.

GM mustard has potential adverse impacts on honey bees. Farmers are worried that GM Mustard will impact the pollen and nectar collection by honey bees resulting in lower mustard honey production and exports. Importantly, farmers and civil society are worried that the approval for this technology will open the flood gates for the entry of tens of other GM food crops waiting in the pipeline.

Bayer’s Liberty Link crops are one of the two main types of GM herbicide resistant crops. Liberty is a trade name for Bayer’s glufosinate herbicide. “In India, the fact that GM mustard is an Herbicide Tolerant crop is something that is being carefully hidden from the public, said Dr Sultan Ismail at a conference organised recently in Chennai on GM Mustard . A herbicide called “Glufosinate” is a neuro toxic pesticide that causes damage to nerves and the brain. Mustard is used as a medicine and in every kitchen of India. Herbicide tolerance would mean increased plant residues.

A pesticide risk assessment of glufosinate ammonium conducted by European Food Safety Authority (EFSA, 2005) classified Glufosinate as a Category 2, R61 “Toxic: may cause harm to the unborn child” and Category 3, R62 “Possible risk of impaired fertility”. (p. 14). It also reported increased kidney weight in rats in long term assessment of toxicity of glufosinate.

India is the home of oilseed diversity — coconut, groundnut, linseed, niger, mustard, rapeseed, safflower and sesame. Our food culture have evolved with our biodiversity of oilseeds. Mustard is the colour of our spring — basant. It is the flavor, and aroma, of our foods. It is a warm massage for a baby, and the glow of our oil-lamps on Diwali. Mustard has been central to the cultural and food identity of the diverse cultures that make India.

This battle is not about narrow issue of a tool, a technology. It is about the larger issue of which food and farming system we want. The country needs a democratic debate on the systems of food and agriculture that protect biodiversity, people’s health, farmers livelihoods. We need an open discussion on the scientific paradigm that guides research, policy and technology development. Decisions about what we eat and how our food is grown cannot be left to opaque committees, connected to the biotech industry and disconnected from the democratic processes that should govern our lives and our food. A high level citizen enquiry is needed which makes transparent the links of all the people in govt who are collaborating with the Poison Cartel to destroy India’s food security, sovereignty, freedom, democracy.

Ruchi Shroff, Navdanya International

Also read

Why Sarson Satyagraha is still needed

By Dr Vandana Shiva – Deccan Chronicle, 30 May 2017

Navdanya condemns GEAC decision on GM Mustard – writes to Environment Minister

Press release, 12 May 2017


Related Campaign

Sarson Satya FB

Sarson Satyagraha – Civil Disobedience against GMO Mustard


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