Us & Them, the farmers

GM mustard exposes our double standards when it comes to technology for farmers

Written by Harish Damodaran | Updated: June 1, 2017 1:41 pm
GM mustard, farmers, technology for farmers, Indian farming methods, Barnase-Barstar-Bar technology One reason is because the alien Barnase and Barstar genes are both isolated from a soil bacterium, making for a mustard that is transgenic or GM. (Source: common wikimedia)

The car we drive has hundreds of patents on the components and systems — from the internal combustion engine, fuel injection, drivetrain, suspension and steering/brake controls, to the electricals and air-conditioning — that work together to run it. The smartphone we use is nothing but an assemblage of patents numbering over 2,50,000, whether these relate to its operating system, processor, wireless local area networking, camera, display screen or protective glass. The aircraft we fly in are made by Boeing or Airbus.

Yet, monopolies/duopolies in airplanes, mobile operating systems (Google Android/Apple iOS) and baseband processors (Qualcomm/MediaTek), or royalties on their components and technologies, do not deter us from driving, flying and using smartphones. Rather, we wait with bated breath for the launch of the next iPhone 8 or the latest Maruti Dzire variant.

But strangely, this absence of guilt, or being deterred by corporate dominance with regard to consuming things “we” want, does not apply to technologies in agriculture. There, the focus suddenly shifts to preventing a corporate agribusiness takeover of food production and ensuring our farmers don’t turn into slaves of Bayer-Monsanto or Dow-DuPont. Further, all that’s traditional and organically grown, without the use of any chemical fertilisers, pesticides, tractors and combine harvesters, becomes the ideal standard. Farmers are expected to conform — because “we” know what’s best for “them”.

Nowhere is this hypocrisy — double standards as far as technologies for “us” and “them” go — more apparent than in our hostility to genetically modified (GM) mustard, now awaiting regulatory clearance. This is fundamentally a technology to make a self-pollinating plant — mustard flowers contain both female and male reproductive organs — amenable to hybridisation and exploit the potential yield gains from crossing genetically diverse parents from even within the same species. To facilitate it, a “Barnase” gene coding for a protein that impairs pollen production is introduced into one of the parents.

The resultant male-sterile line can then receive pollen from another parent, which has, in turn, been introgressed with a separate “Barstar” gene that blocks the action of the Barnase gene. The progeny from cross-pollination is a hybrid plant having a higher yield than either of the parents and also fertile, that is, capable of producing seed/grain.

Now, why should “we” object to this technology?

One reason is because the alien Barnase and Barstar genes are both isolated from a soil bacterium, making for a mustard that is transgenic or GM. But India is importing nearly four lakh tonnes (lt) of rapeseed/canola oil every year, a lot of it being GM and based on the same Barnase-Barstar technology. This is apart from the 40 lt-plus of imported soyabean oil, which is entirely GM. If imported edible oil can be GM, why should our farmers be stopped from planting mustard that is GM? The country is, moreover, producing some 13 lt of cottonseed oil, now the second-largest indigenous edible oil after mustard, at 19 lt. This oil is again GM, derived from domestically grown Bt cotton.

If roughly a quarter of our annual vegetable oil consumption of 220 lt is already GM, how does transgenic mustard radically alter the picture? A second objection could have to do with the presence of a third “Bar” gene in GM mustard, making the plant resistant to the herbicide, glufosinate ammonium. This is basically a marker gene, used to identify those plants that have been genetically modified — the non-GM ones can’t withstand applications of this herbicide — and necessary especially for large-scale hybrid seed production. The naysayers’ contention, however, is that it will also enable farmers to spray the herbicide and hence displace rural labour engaged in manual weeding. But by that logic, shouldn’t we junk washing machines that take away work from domestic helps? Does the responsibility of job creation lie with the farmer alone?

A third allegation is about the yield gains from DMH-11, the GM mustard hybrid developed by Delhi University’s Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP). These, it is said, aren’t spectacular and are lower than yields from CGMCP’s own mustard hybrids bred through non-transgenic methods. The argument misses the point. DMH-11 is just the start. More important is the Barnase-Barstar-Bar (BBB) technology itself, which is a far more robust and viable system for hybrid breeding. It allows for crossing a wider range of Indian and even East European origin mustard lines, to breed for both higher yields as well as disease resistance. Conventional hybridisation techniques such as cytoplasmic male sterility do not permit this level of flexibility, which also explains why CGMCP’s scientists chose BBB.

That brings us to the central point: Why is there so much opposition to a technology developed, after all, by Indian scientists in the public sector? Yes, the original patent for the BBB system was filed by Plant Genetics Systems (now part of Bayer CropScience), but the CGMCP scientists improved upon it, for which they obtained patents (three US, two Canadian, one European Union and Australian each). Yet, we see no value in their work. The opponents — from the so-called Left or the Right — haven’t even bothered to visit the CGMCP, most accessibly located in Delhi University’s South Campus, while taking time out for anti-GMO jamborees in Brussels and The Hague.

All this opposition is reflective of a unique Us and Them syndrome. For “us”, nothing but the latest would do. But farmers will have no right to grow GM mustard and assess its performance on the field. This, even after toxicity and allergenicity studies conducted by the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, have shown no adverse effects. But that apparently isn’t good enough; we want conclusive evidence. Well, was such irrefutable proof of zero-risk for all times a consideration in mobile towers, Viagra or human insulin that’s also GMO? No, because these concern “us”. The Kerala legislative assembly has passed a resolution opposing the commercialisation of GM mustard, stating it endangered the “purity of farming”. Holding farmers to “pure” standards is not limited to a denial of the right to use or reject a technology. It extends to their obligation to safeguard Bharatiya Sanskriti and conserve gauvansh as per “our” noble desire, even if this entails maintaining cattle that are of no use to them. Will we keep these animals in our homes? New Environment Ministry rules prevent farmers from even taking spent bovines to livestock markets without furnishing written declarations that the intended sale isn’t for slaughter purposes.

The Ease of Doing Business, it seems, applies only to “us”. The Left and the Right are seldom known to come together. But when they do — whether, in this case, to protect the Purity of Farming or Bharatiya Sanskriti — one can be sure it will, to paraphrase Adam Smith, end in a conspiracy against the Indian farmer.

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