Come winters there is a distinct flavour of sarson ka saag in the air. A mouth-watering delicacy that has been part of our culture for ages. But there are fears that this age-old indigenous delicacy may become a rarity with the Union Ministry of Environment & Forests considering to grant commercial approval to genetically-modified (GM) mustard, Knowing the health hazards that accompany GM foods, people would certainly prefer to stay away from makki ki roti, sarson ka saag.
Logically, there is no desperate reason to genetically modify a food crop that has traditionally been a part of the daily cuisine. Moreover, there is no way to segregate the GM mustard from normal mustard that one can be sure of. Five years after the Ministry of Environment & Forests had in 2010 imposed a moratorium on Bt brinjal, which, if approved, would have been the first food crop in India to be genetically modified, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the nodal agency that grants approvals, is getting ready to give a green signal to Delhi University’s GM Mustard variety DMH-11. The claim is that this GM Mustard gives 20-25 per cent higher yield, and also improves the quality of the mustard oil. It is time to examine the veracity of these claims.
Claims notwithstanding, it is also time to first understand how easily our food is being tampered in the name of increasing crop productivity. The fact of the matter is that there is no GM crop so far across the globe that increases productivity. Even in GM Mustard, the increase in yield that is being claimed is simply because of the hybrid variety in which the three alien genes have been inserted. Which means if you grow one of the popular mustard hybrids already available in the market, you will hardly have any yield advantage. It is being repeatedly said that India imports edible oils worth Rs 60,000-crore every year, and therefore with an increased productivity of GM Mustard, the import bill will be reduced. For those who do not know the real situation, this looks to be a worthwhile proposition. But what is not known is that the huge imports are not because of any shortage of technology or because farmers are unable to produce more. It is simply because successive governments have allowed import duties to be drastically cut from the applicable rate of 300 per cent to almost zero now. As a result, India has been inundated with cheaper imports. The Oilseeds Technology Mission converted India—from a major importer to become almost self- sufficient in edible oil production.
And then began the downslide. India happily bowed to World Trade Organisation (WTO) pressures to kill its Yellow Revolution. In fact, the demise of the Yellow Revolution is a classic case of how a promising domestic edible oil sector was sacrificed at the altar of economic liberalisation. Severe cuts in import tariffs brought in a flood of cheap imports thereby pushing farmers out of cultivation. Import duties – from a bound level of 300 per cent were slashed to almost zero – in a phased manner. As a result, farmers abandoned cultivation of oilseeds crops and the processing industry too pulled down the shutters. India today imports more than 67 per cent of its edible oil requirement costing a whopping Rs 66,000-crore.
At a time when cotton farmers in India have moved away en bloc from the genetically modified Bt cotton after the 2015 debacle with whitefly attack, how wise will it be to allow GM mustard?
Agriculture Minister too has time and again stressed the need to reduce the dependence on edible oil imports. Ask any educated and concerned citizen and he too would call for cutting down on imports and helping domestic farmers. But I thought the Ministers would at least know that India was actually self-sufficient in edible oils, and it’s because of our faulty trade policies that the country has turned into world’s second biggest importer of edible oils. When I made a presentation before the high-level Shanta Kumar Committee on bifurcating Food Corporation of India (FCI) on how trade liberalisation had destroyed the oilseed revolution, he was very understanding. His recommendations include the need to revisit the trade policies so as to protect domestic production from cheaper imports.
Let us be clear. It’s not because of any shortfall in oilseeds production that India imported Rs 66,000-crore of edible oils in 2015. It’s simply because we wanted imports to be encouraged that the country is saddled with a huge import bill. Although the sub-committee of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the nodal inter-ministerial agency whose approval is necessary, has cleared three varieties of GM Mustard (including DMH-11 and two parental lines) as being ‘safe’, the fact remains that the safety data is being kept hidden. This had prompted the Central Information Commission (CIC) to direct the GEAC to share safety data with the public. It was nice that the ministry promised to put the data on GEAC website and invite public comments. But what shocked me is to know that the GEAC members are not at all perturbed that GM Mustard will increase the usage of chemical herbicides. In fact, the clever stacking of herbicide tolerant genes in GM Mustard favours the herbicide being sold by a multinational company, Bayer.
Even Bt cotton had increased the application of chemical pesticides, Regardless of what the industry claims, the fact remains that the usage of pesticides has gone up in India. According to Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR), in 2005, Rs 649-crore worth of chemical pesticides were used on cotton in India. In 2010, when roughly 92 per cent of the area under cotton shifted to Bt cotton varieties, the usage in terms of value increased to Rs 880.40-crore. In China, where Bt cotton was promoted as a silver bullet case, farmers apply 20 times more chemicals to control cotton pests. In Brazil, which has recently taken over Argentina as far as the spread of GM crops is concerned, pesticide usage has gone up by 190 percent in the past decade. At a time when cotton farmers in India have moved away en bloc from the genetically modified Bt cotton after the 2015 debacle with whitefly attack and the crop becoming susceptible to bollworms, I thought the Ministry of Environment would have learnt a lesson. I see no reason why GM seed companies are not being held accountable for the whitefly devastation caused last year, including suicides by some 300 cotton farmers in Punjab. Is human life so cheap in India that the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare remain silent on suicides in the cotton belt? Civil society groups under the banner of Coalition for GM Free India have already rubbished the productivity claims of 26 per cent higher yield being claimed for GM Mustard. They have accused the developers of falsifying the data and comparing the yield performance of GM Mustard with some of the useless varieties.
The share of mustard oil is only 10 per cent of the total edible oil consumed. Thrust should be to raise the import duties on edible oil and provide farmers with a higher procurement price. They will do the rest. Let’s not use the argument to force controversial and risky GM Mustard as the solution. This is not fair. And if you have seen someone saying in TV ads that the mustard oil we buy is largely contaminated, this is an area that needs urgent attention.
(This article is reproduced from Organiser issue dated on September 10, 2017)