New Delhi: On Wednesday evening, the environment ministry’s genetic engineering approval committee’s (GEAC) one-month deadline for comments on allowing commercialization of Genetically Modified (GM) mustard crop expires, but the panel has a difficult road ahead. The GEAC is the nodal regulator for GM crops.

Not just the politics around the issue has heated up, but the protests have now spread across states with farmer groups, consumer rights activists, eminent citizens and bee-keeping industry voicing their opposition against it.

On Sunday, on the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, thousands of citizens joined Sarson Satyagraha across 18 states to protest against GM mustard. The protest activities included Gram Sabha (Village Council) resolutions to remain GM-free to a mustard celebration festival organized by the Delhi government to collect public feedback on the issue of GM mustard. Delhi and Bihar governments have already informed the Centre of their opposition to the transgenic mustard.

Also read: Politics around GM mustard issue heats up

Citizens across Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chattisgarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Puducherry, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal took part in the protests.

“The government is bypassing scientific rigour and democratic spirit in its keenness to approve GM mustard. It has already announced that it will not extend the public feedback timeline beyond 5 October. Also the environment ministry continues to refuse to publish the full GM mustard bio-safety dossier on its website, thereby violating orders by the Central Information Commission (CIC) and the Supreme Court," said Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, a nationwide informal network of more than 400 organizations drawn from 20 states.

“Many state governments, including Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, which are the top two mustard-cultivating states, have in the past stated their opposition to the release of GM Mustard. Now besides Bihar and Delhi, Punjab and West Bengal have announced that they won’t allow GM mustard. Recently, Kerala government, too, passed a resolution to oppose the GM mustard approval," she added.

On 22 September, nearly 100 eminent citizens from all walks of life like social activists Aruna Roy, Medha Patkar; senior Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan, eminent environmentalists Ashish Kothari, Claude Alvares, V.S. Vijayan and Biswajit Mohanty, farm activists such as Devinder Sharma, Vandana Shiva, farmers’ leaders like Rakesh Tikait, Mohini Mohan Mishra of Bhartiya Kisan Sangh and others, including former health minister Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, wrote to environment minister Anil Madhav Dave expressing concern at the, “non-scientific, opaque and deceptive processes" being adopted by the GEAC. They urged him to extend the public feedback time to 120 days and asked the GEAC to put full bio-safety dossier in public domain for independent scientific scrutiny as done in the past.

Yogeshwar Singh, of Haryana-based Confederation of Bee-keeping industry, said, “GM mustard will of course enhance the use of agri-chemicals in the form of herbicides. Such herbicides have their own toxic impacts. Other than direct toxic effect of the herbicide on bees and other beneficial insects, there is also the indirect impact of destroying habitats of bees and other insects due to the use of weedicide."

“It is absolutely irresponsible of our GM regulators if they don’t take cognizance of the issues that we are raising, which are impacting our livelihoods, from our firsthand experience of Bt cotton. Honey production in a crop like cotton had dropped and honeybees have been affected. This needs a rigorous and comprehensive investigation immediately. Without such a review of the impact of Bt cotton, how can the regulators think about approving GM mustard now?" Singh added.

He expressed surprise at the GEAC for not publishing the entire dossier on their website and said does it expect people to come to Delhi, to memorize and do mental analysis of the dossier submitted.

“What are they hiding?" Singh said.

GM mustard has been developed by Delhi University’s Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants. On 5 September, the GEAC made public a safety assessment report prepared by one of its sub-committees which stated that GM mustard technology has been found to be “safe for food/feed and environment". The committee invited comments till 5 October after which a final decision on allowing its commercialization will be taken.

But since then environmentalists have been unhappy and demanded immediate release of full safety data regarding trials of GM crops in public domain and more time for consultation.

Even 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.

“What the GEAC is doing is a case of ignoring science, commerce, federal politics and citizens’ interests in this mindless push for a junk product. What’s worse is that the government ignores its own party members and affiliated groups in its undemocratic ways," Kuruganti added.

Interestingly, even the safety data put out by the GEAC in September was also done only after the CIC rebuked the environment ministry on 12 August 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 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.

GM crops have always been a contentious issue in India. It flared up a few years ago during the tenure of Jairam Ramesh as the 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 approval from the GEAC, it will become the first transgenic food crop to be commercially cultivated in India.

At present, only GM cotton is cultivated in India.

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