The country’s biotechnology regulator has approved the environmental release and cultivation by farmers of DMH-11, a genetically modified (GM) hybrid mustard developed by scientists at Delhi University. The green signal from the genetic engineering appraisal committee (GEAC) may not, however, amount to much. We know how the same GEAC’s go-ahead for the commercial release of Bt brinjal was overturned in February 2010 by the then Environment Minister — who assumed the role of regulator and ordered a moratorium on the transgenic vegetable’s cultivation. One can only hope that the current minister, Anil Madhav Dave, will not do a Jairam Ramesh, though the pressure may not be any less, with the opposition this time coming primarily from organisations affiliated to the Sangh Parivar.
Those against planting of GM mustard (and Bt brinjal earlier) have sought to invoke the precautionary principle, by claiming these to be “food crops”. This is as opposed to Bt cotton, now being grown by Indian farmers on some 11 million hectares. But the “food” versus “non-food” argument does not wash, simply because lint fibre is only one-third of the kapaas or raw un-ginned cotton harvested by farmers. The balance two-thirds comprises the seed that is crushed to extract oil. Cotton-seed oil is, indeed, India’s second largest indigenously produced oil today after mustard. The de-oiled cake or meal remaining after oil extraction is, likewise, fed to milch animals. Both the oil and meal are, thus, being consumed as “food” either directly or through milk and meat since 2002, when our farmers started cultivating GM cotton. Just as nothing calamitous has happened to us from ingesting Bt proteins all these years, there’s no evidence of the Barnase, Barstar and Bar proteins used in GM mustard being toxic to human or animal health.
The so-called swadeshi opposition to GM mustard is all the more intriguing considering this is a product, unlike Monsanto’s Bt cotton, which has been indigenously developed and in the public sector. Moreover, India imports 15 million tonnes (mt) of edible oils worth almost $11 billion annually. The 15 mt includes 4 mt of soyabean (entirely GM) and 0.4 mt of rape/canola oil (mostly GM).
If so much of GM oil can be imported, why should similar technology not be permitted for oil made in India? Surely, there cannot be one standard for “videshi” and another for “swadeshi” farmers. The scientists behind DMH-11 and the underlying Barnase-Barstar system technology claim it has the potential to increase mustard yields by roughly 30 per cent, besides helping introduce other traits such as resistance to alternaria blight and stem rot that is now limited through conventional breeding. Now that the GEAC has cleared the technology, the government should let farmers test the claims on their fields.