Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav has defended his government’s decision to allow commercial cultivation of the genetically modified (GM) hybrid mustard DMH-11. He has cited three main grounds. The first is that India is already consuming edible oil imported from countries growing GM oilseeds. The fact is that India imported 14.03 million tonnes (mt) of edible oil worth $19.6 billion during the year ended October 2022. That included 4.17mt of soyabean oil, which is entirely GM. To this, if another 1.3 mt from domestically-cultivated Bt cotton is added, nearly a quarter of the 22.5-23.5 mt edible oil that Indians are now consuming comprises GM. That apart, India imported some 0.55 mt of soyabean and 0.65 mt of meal used as animal feed, which were again GM. “We can import from these countries, but we can’t produce (GM crops) of our own?” Yadav asked, rhetorically, at an Express Adda on Monday.
Secondly, the approval for GM mustard followed the prescribed regulatory process. The minister is right there as well. DMH-11, bred by scientists at Delhi University back in 2002, went through two years of confined biosafety research trials during 2010-11 and 2011-12 and one year of multi-location field trials in the 2014-15 rabi crop season. These were carried out by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research under the supervision of the Department of Biotechnology and the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) of the Environment Ministry. Food safety studies were conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research. An “Assessment of Food and Environmental Safety” report, incorporating the evaluation of the data generated, was uploaded on the Environment Ministry’s website in 2016. A GEAC expert committee in September this year also concluded that the transgenic hybrid will pose no adverse impact on honey bees and other pollinators of mustard plants. Casting aspersions on all these scientific bodies is unreasonable. After all, the same bodies were trusted when it came to Covid, Hepatitis-B or polio vaccines, which also contained GM organisms or attenuated pathogens.
The third point made by Yadav concerns the need for promoting scientific research. DMH-11 is a product of indigenous technological innovation even if the original barnase, barstar and bar genes were sourced from a multinational. Moreover, the hybridisation platform on which it is based can be used for breeding mustard hybrids giving higher yields than DMH-11 or possessing other traits such as improved oil quality and disease resistance. The Narendra Modi government, if anything, should be faulted for giving in to an entrenched lobby of Luddites and so-called Swadeshis. Their bluff needed to be called sooner than later.