India’s approval for Genetically Modified Mustard upsets RSS affiliate BKS

There has been a mixed response from farmer organisations to India’s regulatory body recommendation for the environmental release of genetically modified (GM) mustard.

Mustard fields
Mustard fields

There has been a mixed response from farmer organisations to India’s regulatory body recommendation for the environmental release of genetically modified (GM) mustard. The Left-wing peasants’ organisation threw in riders in response to the decision. However, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-affiliated groups have strongly criticised it, demanding a withdrawal.

Denying that he has “welcomed” the development as reported, All Indian Kisan Sabha (AIKS) general secretary Hannan Mollah said that his organisation stands against a blanket ban on technological advances.

The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), a unit of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, has approved an application seeking environmental clearance of indigenously developed GM mustard seeds. This will help pave the way for commercial use of the country’s first GM food crop.

“We’re not against GM crops per se. We’ve neither welcomed the decision nor expressed a total disapproval,” clarified the septuagenarian Marxist leader.

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GM approval is ‘beneficial’

According to the president of National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS), Trilochan Mohapatra, approval for the environmental release of GM mustard hybrid for cultivation is a landmark decision. It has broken a long logjam on the release of GM food crops. The decision will encourage research and innovations to reduce the environmental footprints of agriculture, develop climate-resilient crops, and thereby assure food and nutritional security of the country.

Founder Chairman, Trust for Advancement of Agricultural Sciences (TAAS), R.S. Paroda, said the technology for hybrid seed production developed by the University of Delhi will play an important role in reducing edible oil import burden.

Also read: Centre allows commercial cultivation of GM mustard, India’s first GM food crop

He added that Genetically Modified Mustard hybrid technology will accelerate the development of more high-yielding hybrids to enhance edible oil production and thus reduce the import burden.

India is deficit in edible oils by almost 60 per cent of the total consumption. In the financial year 2020-21, around 13.35 million tonnes of edible oils were imported at a cost of around Rs 1,17,000 crores in foreign exchange.

Technology favoured, corporates not

Agreeing on the use of science and technology to enhance agricultural produce, Hannan Mollah said, “We’re against multinationals and corporate houses developing such technology. Multinationals introduce such products in line with conditions prevailing back home. Corporates are interested in profits alone and thus are likely to compromise on adverse impacts. They’re not here to serve a social cause.”

The Communist Party of India (CPI(M)), to which AIKS is affiliated, had made its stand clear on the contentious issue. This was stated on May 15, 2016, by Padmakumar of Cochin in an article in the party newspaper, People’s Democracy.

“The CPI(M) is all for scientific innovation which protects the best interests of people and farmers. However, the party is firmly of the opinion that there should not be any commercial release of GM crops without ensuring safety for humans, animals and the environment. Stringent long-term bio-safety tests by a competent regulatory mechanism must establish safety for humans, animals, environment and bio-diversity of the country,” wrote Padmakumar.

“The seed monopolies and agribusinesses only aim to maximise profits. They are not concerned about bio-safety or issues like biodiversity or the environment,” the writer noted.

The AIKS, on its part, had said in May 2017 that it is “not against any kind of scientific and technological upgradation in agriculture but all the precautions must be ensured to avoid any kind of negligence towards life of billions of people, environment and livelihood of poor farmers of country. The government should not provide benefits to corporate house involved in agro-chemical business, endangering the public interests.”

Also read: Sugarcane turns bitter for farmers; academic math doesn’t work on field

However, president of the Haryana unit of Bhartiya Kisan Union (Mann), Guni Prakash, welcomed the GEAC approval. “This is a revolutionary step in agriculture. It signifies the victory of science and technology,” he said.

Guni Prakash is a member of the government committee set up to look into issues related to agriculture, including crop diversification, natural farming, and effective and transparent minimum support price for crops.

Though invited to nominate its representatives, the Samyukt Kisan Manch (SKM) refrained, accusing it of being dominated by government officials. The year-long siege to the National Capital was held under the aegis of the SKM.

RSS groups demand rollback

The strongest criticism has come from organisations aligned with the RSS. In a strongly-worded letter to Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) opposed the move. Calling the GEAC recommendation “dangerous”, co-convenor Ashwani Mahajan accused the regulatory body of functioning in an “irresponsible fashion”. He wrote that the claims made in support of GM mustard were “completely untrue, unsubstantiated and wrongly projected”.

SJM has urged the Centre to ensure that the seed be disallowed to be used in fields.

Echoing similar sentiments, another RSS-affiliate, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) has asked the government to “immediately withdraw this decision”. It has sought a detailed discussion with all stakeholders before such a move.

BKS general secretary Mohini Mohan Mishra stated that several contradictory points in favour of GM seed have been put forward and then changed. He also claimed that research on Genetically Modified mustard is inadequate and issues on pollination and effects on pollinating insects need to be addressed.

The farmers’ union has gone on to seek a probe to verify if there were some “deals”. “How did a responsible organisation like GEAC take such an irresponsible, illegal, and unscientific decision?” wondered Mishra.

BKS had earlier questioned government clearance for the cultivation of HT Bt cotton in India. “It gives us pain to write to you about the news in leading daily newspapers about the intention of the government to grant permission for the cultivation of Herbicide Tolerant Bt (HT-Bt) cotton varieties,” it wrote to Environment Minister Yadav on February 22 this year.

Also read: With government policies, farmers’ debts shoot up while incomes wilt

“After an extensive discussion, Hon’ble Supreme Court has already put a moratorium for permitting herbicide tolerance crop varieties. Amid such circumstances, news about the willingness of government to promote the herbicide tolerance varieties of crops are in the bad taste and disturbing,” pointed out the letter.

Reminding that AIKS had earlier raised the issue of proper testing of GM crops before granting clearance for general use, Hannan Mollah pointed out adverse effects earlier where goats died after eating GM plants.

He was referring to allegations earlier that sheep and goats who appeared to have been poisoned after eating GM cotton in Warangal district (then Andhra Pradesh, now in Telangana). The company producing BT cotton, Monsanto, had denied any links to its crop affecting the sheep and goats.

Research, productivity and profits 

India allowed GM cultivation in 2002 with such cotton. It is said that BT cotton helped India turn into the world’s top producer of cotton.

There have been researches on the effects of BT cotton. But detractors have questioned the outcome, alleging a polarised view. While some claim its use is beneficial, others argue against it.

Both sides were mentioned in a study conducted by Ian Plewis, then Emeritus Professor of Social Statistics at the University of Manchester. His research findings are mentioned in the article, ‘Genetically modified cotton – How has it changed India?’ The results of Prof. Plewis’ research suggests that India did meet the primary justification for introducing BT cotton to reduce insecticide use. That the reduction in the use of insecticide most likely benefitted farmers’ health and reduced pollution.

It said “although BT cotton was not designed specifically to increase cotton yield, it was believed that by reducing damage to plants caused by insects, cotton yield would increase”.

However, Prof. Plewis found no evidence for an increase in farmers’ profits after the introduction of BT cotton in any of the states. He suggested that this is likely because the increased expense of the new seeds offset savings in insecticide.

Even as a debate rages over clearance to GM mustard, it is important to design robust research studies, and to have a good national statistical system understand costs and benefits. Some believe that Prof. Plewis’ research forms a strong foundation for such future studies.

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