It is unfortunate that the BJP-ruled states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana have not given no-objection certificates (NOCs) for open field trials of transgenic hybrid mustard in the current planting season. The fact that they haven’t, despite the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) under the Union environment ministry allowing these trials, shows the Centre, too, in a bad light. Moreover, in this case, the genetically modified mustard hybrids have been developed not by a Monsanto or a DuPont, but by scientists led by former Delhi University vice chancellor, Deepak Pental. These publicly bred transgenic mustards had, in earlier bio-safety research “level-1” trials, demonstrated roughly 30 per cent higher yield potential over existing best-performing varieties. If states aren’t granting NOCs for “level-2” field trials — which, by no means, amounts to commercial release — on the unproven suspicion of GM crops having an adverse impact on human health or the environment, it points to a complete surrender to Luddite interests.
It is time the Centre calls the bluff of the states. The original culprit here was the previous UPA regime, which inserted this condition of GM field crop trials requiring NOCs from the states where these are being conducted. While states are entitled to block commercial planting of GM crops through denial of seed licences, they cannot be given a veto over field trials. It is for the GEAC to determine whether a particular transgenic is safe to be released for large-scale cultivation by farmers. Obviously, this can be ascertained only through field trials — which the states are not permitting, concluding beforehand that these pose unspecified threats to biodiversity and human beings/ animals. The Centre needs to come clear: If it believes crop biotech and recombinant DNA technology research have a role in India’s agricultural future, it cannot plead helplessness by citing states’ objections to scientists even evaluating the agronomic performance of their candidate plants in 2.5-acre plots.
What makes the denial of state NOCs for GM mustard and also a transgenic pod borer-resistant chickpea — developed by the Assam Agricultural University under a public-private partnership for commercialisation — even more unfortunate is that both pertain to crops in which India is heavily import-dependent. The country annually imports over $10 billion worth of edible oil and another $2 billion of pulses. Mustard happens to be India’s largest oil-bearing crop, while half of its pulses output comes from chickpea. Those unwilling to tolerate even field trials in potentially yield-enhancing transgenic oilseeds and pulses should answer a simple question: Are they comfortable with precious foreign exchange being drained on their imports?