With the recent statement by Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Bhupinder Yadav claiming that “50-60% import edible oil is GM” and that GM is necessary for Atmanirbhar Bharat, there appears to be a schism not only between the scientific and agrarian community, but also between the RSS and the Modi government.
As India was waking up from its post-Diwali stupor, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) gave environmental clearance to Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11, making it the first GM food crop to be commercially cultivated in India. This news rocked the agriculture world.
DMH-11 was developed by Dr Deepak Pental of Delhi University and is claimed to be India’s first swadeshi GMO. The project was shelved in 2017 after opposition by then environment minister Anil Madhav Dhave and vociferous opposition from the RSS and affiliated organisations like the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch (SJM), Bhartiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), etc. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology on GM crops, chaired by Renuka Chowdhury, also admonished government agencies for gaps in long-term GM biosafety studies and health impact, while advising the Indian government against the adoption of GM crops and herbicide-tolerant crops.
Post Diwali, the RSS-affiliated SJM and BKS spearheaded opposition against the GEAC’s step. Other farmers, trade, environmental and agro-scientific bodies also rallied behind this call against GM mustard. The SJM claimed that DMH-11 was neither “swadeshi” nor a “mustard” but in fact “GM canola”. Various agri-scientists and mustard breeders have already demonstrated mustard varieties that outperform it. Since much of the biosafety and agronomic dossier on DMH-11 is not open to the public, the truth cannot be independently verified. But some facts were clear: Deepak Pental used Bayer’s patented Bar-Barnase system to develop DMH-11 and also made the DMH-11 tolerant to Bayer’s herbicide Glufosinate. Keep in mind that this GM mustard was developed with public money, and yet has a direct monetary and intellectual property trail leading to Bayer.
The ever growing opposition from within its own ranks and state governments didn’t bother the Modi government, and GM mustard was planted in various parts of the country. This move galvanised Prashant Bhushan, who filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court, asking for the uprooting of GM mustard saplings. The government has appeared and argued in favour of GM mustard, but has agreed that it is a herbicide-tolerant crop. Both sides have presented their arguments.
The Supreme Court bench has also questioned the urgency of introducing GM mustard. The matter is being heard but thousands of people including senior scientists, doctors, traders and farmers have written to the prime minister and also built a coalition against the introduction of GM mustard. Coincidentally, the US government complained against India about its GM food trade barriers, and pressured India to accept GM food imports, contrary to Bhupinder Yadav’s claims. If the SC stands by GEAC, India risks losing its non-GM food tag and would forfeit billions each year in agri and organic exports. The government is still to evaluate the potential environmental effects of herbicide use and GM contamination.
Meanwhile Dr M.S. Swaminathan commented on the debate in the RSS magazine Organiser: “The bottom line for any biotechnology regulatory policy should be the safety of the environment, the wellbeing of farming families and the biosecurity of the nation.”
Politically speaking, a tug-of-war is on between RSS groups and the Modi government, and both refuse to give an inch. What happens next in the SC with GM mustard will not only define the future of Indian agriculture, but perhaps signal to Indians the limits of RSS’s influence on the Modi government.
Indra Shekhar Singh is an independent agri-policy analyst and former director, policy and outreach, National Seed Association of India. He tweets at @IndraSSingh.
This article was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.