Politics around GM mustard issue heats up

A group of Janata Dal (United) leaders demonstrated outside the environment ministry and submitted a letter to environment minister Anil Madhav Dave


Genetically modified (GM) crops have always been a contentious issue in India. Photo: AFP
Genetically modified (GM) crops have always been a contentious issue in India. Photo: AFP

New Delhi: With the environment ministry’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) seeking public opinion on commercialization of genetically modified (GM) mustard, the politics around the contentious transgenic crop has begun to heat up.

A group of Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), leaders on Wednesday demonstrated outside the ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) and also submitted a letter to the environment minister Anil Madhav Dave urging him to stop commercialization of GM mustard, arguing that India does not need it. Kapil Mishra, water minister in the Delhi government, has already voiced the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) opposition to GM mustard.

And, interestingly, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has vowed to fight “tooth and nail” against GM mustard.

GM crops have always been a contentious issue in India. It flared a few years ago during the tenure of Jairam Ramesh as environment minister, when he had to put a moratorium on commercialization of Bt brinjal under pressure from non-governmental organizations and activists.

If GM mustard gets the green light from the environment ministry’s GEAC, it will become the first transgenic food crop to be commercially cultivated in India. Right now, only GM cotton is cultivated in the country. GEAC is India’s regulator for approving transgenic products.

In their letter to Dave, JD (U) Lok Sabha MP Kaushalendra Kumar and others highlighted problems with the GM mustard developed by Delhi University’s Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants and urged that “GM mustard should not be approved for commercial release”.

They said that GM mustard’s developers have been silent about the fact that it has been engineered to be herbicide tolerant and stated that the full bio-safety data has not been put out in the public domain for feedback.

On Monday, GEAC placed in the public domain a safety assessment report prepared by a subcommittee which said that GM mustard technology has been found to be “safe for food/feed and environment”.

GEAC will take a final decision on allowing commercialization after it receives comments from the general public and stakeholders on the safety assessment report. The comments must reach GEAC by 5 October.

However, anti-GM activists on Tuesday sought immediate release of full data regarding trials of GM crops into the public domain and more time for public feedback.

Mishra also criticized the central government for pushing GM mustard and demanded a public hearing before taking a final decision.

“Government should not hurry with GM technology especially when it is being introduced in a food crop. In case of GM mustard, no proper procedures were followed. Only 30 days have been given for public opinion but how are our farmers supposed to log on to the Internet. There should be at least 90 days for feedback and full disclosure of the safety data regarding GM mustard,” Mishra said.

“Mustard is the identity of Punjab’s farmers. Full consultation should be carried out with farmers, consumers, environmentalists and scientists. People should be freely allowed to speak their mind. The process should not take place in a hushed manner,” said Mishra, adding that they will protest against GM mustard.

The strongest opposition, however, seems to come from the SJM.

“Multinational companies have hijacked science and what they are teaching the world and government on GM crops is nothing but pseudo science. They only have their profit in mind. They want to control seeds. On GM crops, we have a clear stand that we will oppose it tooth and nail,” said SJM’s national media head Deepak Sharma.

The BJP in its 2014 election manifesto had said GM crops will not be allowed without proper scientific investigation. But GM crops are central to the NDA’s plans for pushing investment and growth in the biotechnology sector. It is also considered critical by the government for boosting farm productivity in India.

The safety data put out by GEAC was done only after the Central Information Commission (CIC) on 12 August rebuked the environment ministry for not releasing the same, saying “any attempt to postpone or delay the disclosure will block the public discussion” on GM mustard.

In April, too, the CIC had pulled up the environment ministry over a lack of transparency on trials of GM crops and directed it to make public all information, including bio-safety data, related to the field trials of GM mustard.

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