The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), which sits at the top of the regulatory system for genetically-modified (GM) crops had advised the government on 11 May that the GM mustard hybrid, DMH-11. was safe for humans, animals and the environment and therefore the government should allow farmers to cultivate it. For nearly four months Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan has been sitting on the recommendation, perhaps not wishing to take on the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), a part of the Sangh Parivar, which opposes its release for ideological reasons. Perhaps Harsh Vardhan agrees with the views of the SJM. No nudge has come from the Prime Minister either. The hybrid was part funded by the Department of Technology (DBT) which continues to fund research in GM crops. In a philosophical way, K VijayRaghavan, Secretary of DBT, said he was hopeful, because the alternative (losing hope) was not a helpful attitude, when asked why the DBT was wasting public money when the research it was funding was not being put to public use. Amita Prasad, Additional Secretary in the ministry of environment and Chairperson of GEAC, said its job was done once it had given the recommendation.
The National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) is telling the fence-sitters in the government to take a stand and not engage in another bout of futile consultations with the GM bashers, because their intention is to deceive. It put together a team of scientists to study the arguments made against DMH-11. Here is what it says:
The negative reports on GM mustard appearing on websites, newspapers and letters to ministers and the Prime Minister’s office (PMO) are “fallacious, willfully distort scientific data and have been made with the sole intention of scuttling the use of a technology which could be of great interest and value to the country.”
In a report, it says the bashers compare the yield of Canada’s 120-day GM rapeseed (related to mustard) crop with that of Europe’s 300-day non-GM rapeseed crop, to “prove” that GM technology does not increase yields. The graphs they have presented show that Canada’s yield per hectare is 1.9 tons while that of Europe is 3.9 tons without discounting the time factor. “This argument is a willful misrepresentation of scientific facts,” the NAAS report says. It was first made by an international anti-GM activist Colin Todhunter and subsequently repeated by former Cabinet Secretary T S R Subramanian in a 24 May, 2017 article in The Hindu and by a member of NAAS, P C Kesavan in a letter to the President of NAAS.
It dismisses as “nothing but mischief” the charge that Bio-safety Research Level-I (BRL-I) and BRL-II field trials conducted in 2011-11, 2011-12 and 2014-15 were not adequate for yield assessment of DMH-11. The bashers say that it should have been compared with a high-yielding mustard variety called Kranti, but was not. The NAAS team says data generated in trials conducted by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research– All India Coordinated Research Project on Rapeseed-Mustard in the last eight years show that both Kranti and another variety called RL-1359 have “very similar” weighted average yields when tested at 51 locations in one zone. Kranti was not an entry in the BRL trials but RL-1359 was. The yield of DMH-11 was 35 percent more than that of RL-1359, which is a “significant increase for a first generation hybrid.”
In comparison, the first GM rapeseed variety which Canada released had an yield increase of 13 percent over the non-GM mega variety Westar. That GM variety used the same hybridization technology as DMH-11. In 2008, Canada released a GM rapeseed variety which had a 45 percent yield advantage over Westar. “A robust hybrid seed production system is a one-time breakthrough — finding and breeding parental lines for developing hybrids with higher yields is an ongoing exercise,” it says.
It is not true that Indian mustard has high diversity, the NAAS team says. Contrary to the bashers, the Indian gene pool of mustard is very narrow. Only by creating hybrids can India break out of yield stagnation in mustard. It says 86 percent of Canada’s rapeseed area is planted with hybrids, 80 percent in China and more than 90 percent in Europe. India has been lagging behind because it does not have a robust system of creating mustard hybrids, which will be available once DMH-11 is approved for mass cultivation.
The reports addresses the issues of herbicide-tolerance in DMH-11, the fear of genetic pollution of existing varieties and safety of the oil from GM mustard for humans. In 2016, Canada exported 10.5 million tonnes of GM rapeseed, 2.8 million tonne of GM rapeseed oil and 4.4 million tonnes of GM rapeseed meal to many countries around the world, including Japan and India, it says. There are no reports of ill-effects from any of the producing or consuming countries. It challenges the bashers to bring reports, that prove the contrary,to the public. “They cannot,’ it says, because “no such reports exist.”
(Top photo: GM bashers at a conclave in Delhi on 30 September, 2016. Photo by Vivian Fernandes)