As a central genetic engineering regulator considered whether to allow commercial cultivation of India’s first transgenic food crop, sparring farmers groups and NGOs brought diametrically different views on genetically modified, or GM, mustard to the table.

The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, or GEAC, which met in New Delhi on Monday, was scheduled to discuss whether to allow farmers to cultivate a home-grown genetic modification of mustard, claimed to create hybrids with 25%-30% higher yields than traditional varieties. This is the first time the government is considering commercialisation of a transgenic food crop after the previous United Progressive Alliance government slapped an indefinite moratorium on BT brinjal six years ago.

Transgenic crops involve seeds produced by "genes being artificially inserted into a different plant to improve yield, tolerance to heat or drought, to produce better drugs or even to add a vitamin".

Decision deferred

No final decision was taken on the GM mustard approval by the GEAC on Monday, according to a spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment and Forests. The GEAC, which is a body of government-appointed experts chaired by an Additional Secretary in the Ministry, is expected to conduct further risk assessment analysis.

Following Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar’s promise after the last Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee meeting to listen to wider voices on the GM debate, the committee invited farmers groups and NGOs both for and against transgenic foods to make presentations during Monday’s meeting.

Activists, independent scientists and farmers groups under the umbrella of the Coalition for a GM-free India claimed that rigged data was being used to shore up false claims of higher yields and biosafety. However, as they were only offered a maximum of half an hour for their seven-member delegation, the anti-GM activists walked out of the GEAC meeting and shared their objections with the media instead.

“This is a scientific fraud,” said Sharad Pawar, a fellow with the Academy of Agricultural Sciences and a member of the Coalition. He alleged that the Delhi University scientists who developed the GM variant called DMH-11 used rigged protocols in their testing, and also used outdated, low-yield variants as their baseline for comparison, thus artificially boosting yields for the GM variant by at least 7.5%. Ecologist Debal Deb also claimed that the developers were hiding a 25% rate of failure of the transgene to ensure male sterility in the plant. “There is not just lack of transparency and fudged data, there is a breakdown of their own technology,” he said.

Farmers groups in the Coalition said that GM mustard would only benefit seed companies and chemical manufacturers. “It is farming livelihoods that will be most affected, but we have not been given a voice in this discussion,” said Rampal Jat of the Kisan Mahapanchayat in Rajasthan. “GM crops will destroy our traditional biodiversity,” added Yudhvir Singh of the Bhartiya Kisan Union, pointing to the plight of many cotton farmers after the introduction of genetically modified BT cotton. “We need to improve and protect traditional varieties of mustard.”

‘GM-mustard already in India’

Not all farmers agree. The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee listened to a half-hour presentation from the Consortium of Indian Farmers Associations and farmers groups from Maharashtra and Rajasthan in favour of GM mustard. They insisted the transgenic variant was desperately needed to end the stagnation of mustard productivity in India and reduce the country’s mustard oil import bills.

“We are already importing GM mustard oil from Canada, about 3.55 lakh tonnes in 2014-15,” said P Chengal Reddy, secretary-general, Consortium of Indian Farmers Associations. “Why do you want to prevent Indian farmers from doing the same thing?” He claimed mustard productivity in India had stagnated at 1,000 kg per hectare in comparison to 1,800 kg per hectare in Canada.

He dismissed the worries about biosafety, pointing to widespread global use of GM mustard. “With BT cotton and BT brinjal, these activists claimed it was bad technology from MNCs,” said Reddy. “Now this is public sector research, funded by the National Dairy Development Board, which has been supervised and monitored for almost 15 years. What more do they want?”

“Saying that GM mustard is safe because it is public sector funded research is a dangerous trojan horse that will open the way for other GM crops as well,” warned Kavitha Kuruganti of the Coalition. She also pointed to concerns that cross-pollination would affect organic farming and honey production.

At its Monday meeting, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee was also scheduled to discuss how to disseminate the bio-safety data that the Central Information Commission told it to make public in an April order. More transparency is essential as the argument on the dangers and merits of the GM crop moves beyond farmers, ecologists and scientists, with the government-appointed body soon expected to throw open the debate to the final stakeholder – the consumer – with a request for feedback from the public.