Activism, like politics, makes for strange bedfellows, especially when it comes to genetically modified crops. So it would seem from the disparate group that gathered recently in Pune to discuss a technology that has been roiling the country for over a decade. Spending an entire day together were top-flight geneticists, a missile scientist, plant breeders from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, heads of the largest seed and biotech companies, a nuclear energy boffin, activists, farmers’ representatives and officials of Niti Aayog, the new-avatar Planning Commission set up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The day-long symposium on October 7 at the National Chemical Laboratories, Pune, was fraught with significance for the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government, which is keen to push GM crops but has been stymied by the opposition of civil society and dissension within its ranks.

The meeting’s timing was critical. With GM mustard, a food crop, coming up for regulatory approval, the government could use all the help it could get in winning over the critics, particularly those in the Sangh Parivar. Much to its discomfiture, two Sangh outfits, Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, the largest organisation of farmers in the country, and Swadeshi Jagran Manch, which has led high-profile campaigns against policies they consider to be against the national interest, have been vocal in their opposition to GM crops.

Much thought had, therefore, gone into planning this strategic meeting and it was politic that it was hosted by two RSS organisations: Vijnana Bharati and Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodhini. While Vijnana Bharati, somewhat ironically, spearheads the “movement for swadeshi sciences and technologies”, Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodhini is a Mumbai-based outfit that aims to “empower social activists with proper training and resources” among its many pursuits.

This was the second such initiative by these organisations. The strategy is simple: get an impressive number of scientists specialising in genetic modification, among them a clutch of former ICAR heavyweights, to talk about the benefits of the technology and the urgent need for India to adopt it. Also, rope in the top companies selling GM seeds, such as Mahyco (it is partly owned by global agribiotech giant Monsanto), to talk about the food security concerns in India and the need to improve the economic condition of the country’s impoverished farmers.

Fraternal disagreements

Playing a pivotal role in putting it all together is an unlikely figure – Ashok Chowgule, executive director of Chowgule & Company, a large Goa-based industrial group with interests in iron ore mineral, shipbuilding, industrial explosives among others. Although agriculture is far removed from his business interests, Chowgule is passionate about GM technology as “the way forward” for agriculture. In his newfound zeal, the corporate executive has been a godsend to the pro-GM groups.

His lobbying of Niti Aayog in May this year “with a fervent request to expedite the existing field trials of various crops” has helped him cobble together an impressive discussion group of international and Indian scientists known for their work on GM crops. The group’s focus is on countering the arguments put forth by the anti-GM lobby.

In an interview with this writer, Chowgule says the objective of the Pune symposium was to find out “how we can together, project the right picture to the people at large. And try and wean away the people from the emotionalised campaign of the anti-GMO activists”. He accuses them of being not only “anti-science but they conduct themselves in an unethical way by projecting the technology as causing harm”. He singles out Vandana Shiva, champion of sustainable agriculture, and Greenpeace for knowingly spreading falsehoods about the dangers of GM technology. Even though “they have been exposed”, they have been able to “intellectually terrorise the government authorities all over the world into doing their bidding”, says Chowgule.

As for the Sangh outfits Bharatiya Kisan Sangh and Swadeshi Jagran Manch, he believes “the worldwide opponents of the technology are misusing these two organisations for their agenda”. That may be a simplistic way of wishing away their deep-seated antagonism to GM crops that has shown no let-up despite the best efforts of fraternal RSS organisations. Less than a month after the Pune symposium, the BKS hit out at the reported plans of the Environment Ministry headed by Prakash Javadekar to approve GM mustard for commercial cultivation. And it was telling that the criticism came from the BKS in Gujarat, Modi’s home state.

Threatening natural diversity

In a letter to Hem Pande, chairman of the regulator Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, BKS cited the problems experienced by farmers using GM or Bt cotton in Gujarat. Not only were the farmers getting no protection from the various cotton pests, as GM seeds are expected to provide, but they were also compelled to use more pesticides and fertilisers and thus incurring higher input costs. BKS has a membership of 5 lakh in Gujarat.

The basic premise of using expensive GM seeds is that they protect the crop from some pest attacks, increase yields and reduce use of harmful pesticides and fertilisers. The BKS complaint is that none of the promises of GM technology has been kept in the case of cotton.

BKS, like a significant number of farmers’ organisations, has questioned the need for GM mustard. Its letter to GEAC points out average productivity in Gujarat is about 1,700 kg per hectare, the second highest in India. Besides, farmers already have a wide range of natural diversity to choose from while selecting what variety of mustard to grow. GM mustard, on the other hand, would imperil this diversity by contaminating the traditional varieties.

It is significant that Gujarat, unlike neighbouring states, has not allowed field trials of GM food crops.

Safety concerns 

The controversial GM mustard is a hybrid variety called DMH 11 and it was tested in Rajasthan and Punjab. In a research project funded by the National Dairy Development Board, the supposedly high-yielding variety was developed by Delhi University genetics professor Deepak Pental at the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants.

What must be rather disconcerting for the Modi government is that three Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees in Gujarat have recently joined the opposition to GM mustard. APMCs are marketing boards set up by state governments to ensure that all farm produce is brought to designated market yards for auction. Three out of the four APMCs in the mustard-growing areas of Gujarat have also written to GEAC questioning the need for GM foods. It is estimated that these three APMCs, which deal with 1 lakh farmers in their area, handle business worth Rs 400 crore.

While Bt cotton has been cultivated since 2002, GM mustard will become the first food crop to be grown in India if GEAC does approve it commercialisation. Although the transgenic Bt brinjal developed by Mahyco was the first to be approved by GEAC, its release was stalled in 2010 by the Environment Ministry, the parent ministry of the regulator. Then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh had ordered an indefinite moratorium on Bt brinjal after nationwide consultations with citizens and consumer organisations and after studying risk assessment studies made by reputed international scientists.

The moratorium was to remain till fresh scientific studies were commissioned on the transgenic brinjal and the testing processes were overhauled, much to the dismay of the biotech industry which sees huge profit in selling GM hybrid seeds in a host of food crops. At the time, Ramesh had said, “If you need long term toxicity tests, then you must do it, no matter how long it takes…There is no overriding urgency or food security argument for Bt brinjal.” He said it was important to establish public confidence and trust in GM foods before allowing their cultivation. The moratorium should be used to set up an independent regulatory authority.

This view was reinforced subsequently by the recommendations of a top-level committee of scientists, known as the Technical Expert Committee, which was set up on the orders of the Supreme Court to look into the safety concerns over GM crops. However, none of the steps outlined by Ramesh or TEC has been implemented, neither by the previous United Progressive Alliance regime nor the current government.

Cloak of secrecy

Since the Modi government came to power, the regulatory process on GM has been brought under a tighter cloak of secrecy. Even innocuous information such as the agenda of GEAC meetings is no longer publicly available, much less what is being approved and how it was done. This has provided further ammunition to opponents of GM crops such as ASHA (Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture) whose convenor, the outspoken Kavitha Kurugunti, has excoriated the Environment Ministry for its unwarranted secrecy.

At a press conference in June, Kuruganti described as outrageous the BJP government’s push on GM food crops without ensuring adequate safety assessment or transparency. She pointed out that the entire biosafety assessment of GM mustard is shrouded in secrecy and that repeated efforts including RTI requests have remained unanswered since 2006. In the latest RTI query, biosafety information was denied to ASHA on the grounds that “it was under process” although under a Supreme Court order all biosafety reports, the biology of the crop and related literature have to be placed in the public domain.

All this has provided grist to the mill of public opposition to GM mustard. Javadekar could perhaps afford to ignore the criticism of Sangh organisations, but opposition from his own partymen is an embarrassment that he could do without. One such was the defiance of Rajasthan Agriculture Minister Prabhulal Saini who repeated the view that GM crops could be harmful to health and should be put through detailed safety tests. Although the previous Congress Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot had allowed field trials of hybrid mustard, the Vasundhara Raje government would not permit them, according to Saini.

Rajasthan, which has 46 lakh hectares under mustard, is the biggest producer of oilseed mustard. The minister’s threat to block GM mustard even if the Centre allowed commercial cultivation is an indication that the government has been unable to bring party officials, much less RSS pracharaks, around to its view that field trials of GM crops must continue.

It is having even less influence with its NDA allies. Last week, the Punjab government run by BJP partner Akali Dal ordered Punjab Agricultural University to stop further field trials of GM mustard. The decision was announced by Agriculture Minister Tota Singh and reports from Chandigarh said it came soon after a presentation made by civil society groups under the banner of Coalition for a GM Free India which raised bio safety and health concerns.

It would appear that civil society organisations are proving more successful in convincing people and officialdom about the possible dangers of GM mustard than the government has been in persuading its party and Sangh dissenters about the putative benefits of GM food crops. So far, the SJM has not backtracked from its stand that GM crops are unnatural and come with dangerous tolerance traits. Last week, after a two-day sitting of its executive, BKS said it would launch a nationwide agitation if the government did not agree to stop GM mustard. This has put the government in a tight spot, but an inside view is that it would simply ignore these recalcitrant organisations if it deems the commercial release of GM mustard expedient by citing the shortage of cooking oils.

Meanwhile, Chowgule’s group of scientists has decided to take their battle online battle by launching a petition of their own to urge Javadekar to back Pental’s GM mustard. They say if Vandana Shiva can launch a petition – she is hoping to collect 25,000 signatures against GM mustard – so can they. But no target figure has been set.