By Dr. Soma Marla
Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, GOI (GEAC) has permitted on October 18 the environmental release of genetically-modified (GM) mustard. Being the first food crop, the studies by expert question the environmental and biosafety as well as human health risks associated with hasty government approval. Gory experience of GM cotton, which resulted in havoc and farmer suicides in cotton fields during the last decade and half only benefited Monsanto and other Agribusiness MNCs.
Scientists at the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants, University of Delhi have developed the transgenic GM mustard hybrid DMH-11(‘Dhara Mustard Hybrid’) to make the crop tolerant to herbicide power to tolerate high dose of applied chemical weed killer introduced by incorporating two genes – barnase and barstar – found in the soil bacterium Bacillus amyloliquefaciens were introduced in to two mustard varieties, ‘Varuna’ and ‘Early Heera-2’. The later two mustard varieties were crossed in to mustard hybrid using a genetic technique called ‘male sterility’. The introduced bacterial genes in the hybrid, makes its plants tolerant of a herbicide called glufosinate ammonium. Glufosinate is a sister chemical of glyphosate or Agent Orange from Vietnam war),while all other weeds in the field are killed.
Wide spread application of this weedicide not just pollutes soil, water bodies and enters food chain, thus harming human health. Glufosinate and glypohosate are known cancer agents and daily consumption of contaminated food is harmful to human health. In villages of Punjab, UP and several states people on daily basis consume Sarson ki saag (green mustard leaf), cooking oil in diet and oil cake in poultry and animal feed. Author of this article while working on GM crops as a Scientist in Queensland, Australia had shown how introduced gene synthesized toxin leaks to leaves, seeds and the chemical residues that harm bees, birds and humans from its consumption (PNASUSA,1998). Only party that would potentially benefit from immense chemicalization of agriculture is chemical giant BAYER, the sole manufacturer of Glufosinate and glypohosate.
Government claims cultivation of GM mustard would increase oilseed production and helps in cutting huge sum of 20 billion dollars spent on import of vegetable oils. However, experimental yield trials conducted by regulatory authority GEAC at Indian Agricultural Institute, Pusa campus, New Delhi did not show any yield supremacy of GM mustard hybrid compared to ruling variety Varuna. But on October 18 GEAC declared that the transgenic DMH11 can have 20 to 25 percent yield advantage over Varuna but did not provide yield data in public domain. The arguments are unfounded since they are devoid of experimental data available in public domain.
Over chemicalization of mustard fields could shrink the number of bees as indicated by several entomologists. Bees not just provide us honey but by pollinating flowers endow us high yields of grain and also fruits. It is estimated that nearly 30 percent of food is produced in fields world over thanks to these humble bees. Food GM crop cultivation threatens our nation’s food security. Late Dr. Pushpa Bharghav, legendary molecular biologist; been Vice President for former Knowledge Commission and actively advocated the health issues, and warned against threats from environmental havoc created by GM crops in Indian agriculture.
Pro GM crop supporters, corporate agribusiness sections of unethical scientists often claim GM is the only solution for increasing food production (reducing costly vegetable oil imports) and to combat hunger. In contrast in late 80’s Yellow revolution was heralded under ICAR National Oil seeds Mission, which successfully increased oil seed production and made the nation self -reliant in vegetable oil production. India is home to valuable oil seed crops such as Sesame, yellow mustard, groundnut and ICAR NBPGR’s Gene bank maintains nearly 30,000 types of oil seed varieties safe. The National Oil seeds Mission made use of this rich collection and East European oil seed germplasm in traditional plant breeding and evolved dozens of high yielding crop varieties. These crop seeds were freely made available by public sector research to millions of small farmers around the country. However, under the influence of WTO and unethical export trader lobby the import taxes of vegetable oils was drastically reduced.
Thus, cheap imports prompted by MNC Agro business labby, domestic oil seed cultivation became unviable and India became dependent on vegetable oil imports.
Corporate Agribusiness Approval for commercial GM mustard cultivation opens gates for introduction of other Gm food crops like brinjal, rice, wheat, maize. This will destroy public sector agricultural research and leads to monopoly of MNC corporates on Indian seeds sector. Sad experience of GM cotton monopoly by Monsanto being a clear example. Recent government decision will not only push our farmers into much deeper distress but also destabilize PDS by threatening sovereign food production and food security. Union government should immediately withdraw approval for commercial cultivation of GM mustard. (IPA Service)
** Author is Rtd Principal Scientist, Genomics, ICAR New Delhi.