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Other environmental concerns apart, GM mustard could also send bees buzzing away

The government, in its assessment of the transgenic crop, has not adequately looked at the impact it will have on bees, among the most important pollinators.

More than six years after a moratorium on Bt Brinjal halted the development of the transgenic vegetable, a sinister game is being played again.

This time, it is the mustard crop that is under the threat of being replaced by an ill-tested, gene-altered version, whose impact on the ecosystem remains unknown.

What primarily motivated the Ministry of Environment and Forest to impose the moratorium on Bt Brinjal was the lack of a suitable bio-safety and risk assessment mechanisms for genetically engineered crops in the country. Over the years, not much has changed on this front.

Why, then, is the government so keen on pressing ahead with the Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11, or DMH-11?

A scrutiny of the Assessment of Food and Environmental Safety document put together by the Ministry of Environment and Forest on the proposal for Authorisation of Environmental Release of Genetically Engineered Mustard (Brassica juncea) Hybrid DMH-11 reveals serious lacunae in the assessment protocols.

The alarming haste with which the government plans to introduce genetically modified mustard to Indian fields shows its sheer disregard for human and environmental concerns.

Impact on bees

Let’s take the case of bees. The yellow mustard flowers in full bloom are not only a treat for the eyes, they are a treat for bees as well, making them a favourite among beekeepers. But the importance of bees to the mustard plant has been completely and conveniently overlooked in the proposal for GM Mustard.

Bees play a crucial role in sustaining life on earth. However small they are, the buzz they create has a wide impact. The pollen grains they carry are responsible for the pollination of 75% of crops globally, including mustard. This is how new seeds are created and this has been nature’s way of striking a delicate balance. For India alone, the worth of insect pollination in important vegetable crops is $726 million.

The mustard crop has 10-20% dependency on bees for pollination, which leads to the creation of new seed sets. Thus, pollen flow from the genetically enhanced mustard is a major concern.

A decrease in pollinator populations can bring about a pollination deficit. This reflects on the health and subsequently, the population of pollinators around the fields. In other words, we need to know how DMH-11 can impact the health of pollinators. Is there an adequate bee population around the DMH-11 fields? Page 84 of the Assessment of Food and Environmental Safety document answers this in one line: "There was no reduction in bee visit."

Such statements indicate the degree of casualness with which the assessment seems to have been made. Our research (recent unpublished data) at the Centre for Pollination Studies, University of Calcutta, reveals for the first time in India that there is significant pollination deficit (when the actual pollination is less than the potential pollination) in conventional mustard grown in intensive agricultural areas where extensive agro-chemicals were used. This was because of the reduction in optimum pollinator population in the landscape that would have been essential for the formation of optimum seed sets in the mustard crop.

In 2005, a major study carried out by a group of American researchers led by Iora Morandin reported a high pollination deficit in genetically modified canola fields (B napus and B rapa) compared to the organic and conventional varieties. This study clearly outlined the effect agrochemicals (including herbicides) would have on pollination. While organic canola had no pollination deficit, the conventional canola (grown with agro-chemicals) had moderate pollination deficit.

In case of the DMH-11, no such pollination deficit study was carried out by comparing it to organic mustard, conventional mustard and the genetically modified hybrid – or even available non-genetically-modified hybrid mustard varieties – across seasons, years and locations.

Further, DMH-11 has been made resistant to a herbicide called gluphosinate, and if the genetically enhanced mustard is commercially released, the farmers are sure to use it generously on the crop. However, the impact of gluphosinate on honeybee health has not been looked at. This is a gaping hole in the assessment protocol.

This is all the more worrisome because very little information is available on the impact of gluphosinate on terrestrial (or aquatic) animals. So nobody really knows what impact the herbicide will have on the bees and other non-target organisms.

Glaring loopholes

As is apparent from the Assessment of Food and Environmental Safety document, although a pollen flow study was conducted for DMH-11, there was no such study conducted for the parent gene – barnase, which comes from soil bacterium Bacillus amyloliquefaciens.

This gene causes male sterility in one parental line of the plant – suppressing its pollen production – and is therefore problematic if it escapes into the wild.

Moreover, the study has been carried out for a single season only, which is grossly inadequate. Such studies need to be carried out over several years. The studies on Bt Brinjal were also carried out over multiple seasons. The single-season study is a prime example of why the move to introduce DMH-11 is hasty.

The pollen flow study reported in the Assessment of Food and Environmental Safety document contains nothing about whether the extent and rate of outcrossing – whether the pollen grains from genetically enhanced mustard were carried by bees to other non-GM mustard varieties or closely-related plant species – was assessed at all.

It appears that the study protocol was limited by a plot distance of only 50 metres surrounding the outer boundary of genetically enhanced crop as specified in Page 85 of the Assessment of Food and Environmental Safety document.

The protocol of fixing the study radius to 50 m is similar to the one used by a group of British scientists led by Jodi Scheffler in 1993. This study was conducted on genetically engineered oil-seed rape (Brassica napus) involving European honey bees (Apismellifera) and the bumble bee (Bombusterrestris).

Although Apismellifera is found in India, the dominant honey bee species are Apiscerana (hive bee) and Apisdorsata (the Indian rock bee). The rock bee, which is larger and feistier than its European counterpart, can carry pollen grains to distances greater than 50m. Unfortunately, this possibility was conveniently forgotten.

Eco-friendly alternatives

The main reason for the aggression and haste in pushing genetically enhanced mustard seems to lie in the (independently unverified) claim that it will increase the yield of the plant by 30%.

But yield can be increased through other pollinator-friendly and eco-agricultural means.

In fact, even if DMH-11 has the potential to increase yield, the deficit in cross-pollination is likely to bring the overall output down.

Instead, yield can be increased by adopting a non-fatal pest-management systems and keeping semi-natural vegetation in the landscape. This technique could be tested on the nearly 12 improved varieties of mustard seeds, (for example, those developed in the Indian Agriculture Research Institute or the Coral 432 hybrid variety developed by Advanta).

In fact, these high-yield hybrid varieties of mustard were also overlooked while testing DMH-11 – no comparison study was carried out between DMH-11 and these varieties.

So the question then arises: do we really need genetically modified hybridisation in the first place?

This poor assessment mechanism was brought up by the environment ministry while imposing the moratorium on Bt Brinjal. The decision document of the ministry had said that “more well designed tests that are independently conducted and widely accepted” would be required before any decision on its release could be considered.

But the case with DMH-11 shows us that six years on, nothing has changed.

Dr Parthib Basu is the associate professor and HoD, Zoology, and Director of Centre for Pollination Studies, University of Calcutta

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.