Sep 7, 2016

Isn't the GM Mustard debate about a junk variety?


Thirty years back, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi laid the foundation of what was later called as Yellow Revolution. The Oilseeds Technology Mission he launched in 1986 converted India -- from a major importer to become almost self-sufficient in edible oil production -- in 1993-94, in less than ten years. A remarkable achievement, indeed.

And then began the downslide. India happily bowed to World Trade Organisation (WTO) pressures to kill its Yellow Revolution. In fact, the demise of the Yellow Revolution is a classic case of how a promising domestic edible oil sector was sacrificed at the altar of economic liberalisation. Severe cuts in import tariffs brought in a flood of cheap imports thereby pushing farmers out of cultivation. Import duties – from a bound level of 300 per cent were slashed to almost zero – in a phased manner. As a result, farmers abandoned cultivation of oilseeds crops and the processing industry too pulled down the shutters. India today imports more than 67 per cent of its edible oil requirement costing a whopping Rs 66,000-crore.

So when the new Environment Minister Anil Madhav Dave said the other day to an international news agency Reuters that India was keen to cut down the huge import bill of edible oils, it certainly was a welcome statement. Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh too has time and again stressed on the need to reduce the dependence on edible oil imports. Ask any educated and concerned citizen and he too would call for cutting down on imports and helping domestic farmers. But I thought the ministers would at least know that India was actually self-sufficient in edible oils, and it’s because of our faulty trade policies that the country has turned into world’s second biggest importer of edible oils.

When I made a presentation before the high-level Shanta Kumar committee on bifurcating Food Corporation of India (FCI) on how trade liberalisation had destroyed the oilseed revolution, he was very understanding. His recommendations include the need to revisit the trade policies so as to protect domestic production from cheaper imports. I wish both Mr Radha Mohan Singh and Mr Anil Dave too had emphasised on the desperate need to raise the import duties to boost domestic production rather than to harp on allowing the commercial cultivation of the controversial genetically modified mustard (GM Mustard) in the name of increasing productivity.

Let us be clear. It’s not because of any shortfall in oilseeds production that India imported Rs 66,000-crore of edible oils in 2015. It’s simply because we wanted imports to be encouraged that the country is saddled with a huge import bill.

Although the sub-committee of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the nodal inter-ministerial agency whose approval is necessary, has cleared three varieties of GM Mustard (including DMH-11 and two parental lines) as being ‘safe’, the fact remains that the safety data is being kept hidden. This had prompted the Central Information Commission (CIC) to direct the GEAC to share safety data with the public. I am glad minister Anil Dave has promised to put the data on GEAC website and invite public comments. But what shocks me is to know that the GEAC members are not at all perturbed that GM Mustard will increase the usage of chemical herbicides. In fact, the clever stacking of herbicide tolerant genes in GM Mustard favours the herbicide being sold by a multinational company, Bayer.

Even Bt cotton had increased the application of chemical pesticides, Regardless of what the industry claims, the fact remains that the usage of pesticides has gone up in India. According to Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR), in 2005, Rs. 649- crore worth of chemical pesticides was used on cotton in India. In 2010, when roughly 92 percent of the area under cotton shifted to Bt cotton varieties, the usage in terms of value increased to Rs. 880.40-crore. In China, where Bt cotton was promoted as a silver bullet case, farmers apply 20 times more chemicals to control cotton pests. In Brazil, which has recently taken over Argentina as far as the spread of GM crops is concerned, pesticide usage has gone up by 190 percent in the past decade.

At a time when cotton farmers in India have moved away en bloc from the genetically modified Bt cotton after the 2015 debacle with whitefly attack and the crop becoming susceptible to bollworms, I thought the Ministry of Environment would have learnt a lesson. I see no reason why GM seed companies are not being held accountable for the whitefly devastation caused last year, including suicides by some 300 cotton farmers in Punjab. Is human life so cheap in India that the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare remain silent on suicides in cotton belt? I thought Farmers Welfare was now a mandate for the Ministry of Agriculture.

Civil society groups under the banner of Coalition for GM Free India have already rubbished the productivity claims of 26 per cent higher yield being claimed for GM Mustard. They have accused the developers of falsifying the data and comparing the yield performance of GM Mustard with some of the useless varieties. In any case, there are five more existing non-GM varieties which yield significantly higher than the transgenic variety DMH-11. I therefore can’t understand how will a GM variety with low productivity eventually help in cutting down on edible oil imports? Isn't the entire debate about GM Mustard therefore only about a junk variety? 

Share of mustard oil is only 10 per cent of the total edible oil consumed. Thrust should be to raise the import duties on edible oil and provide farmers a higher procurement price. They will do the rest. Let’s not use the argument to force controversial and risky GM Mustard as the solution. This is not fair. And if you have seen Baba Ramdev saying in TV ads that the mustard oil we buy is largely contaminated, this is an area needing urgent attention. I thought that the Ministry of Agriculture as well as the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare join hands with the Food Safety Standards Authority to clean-up the mustard oil market of contamination. That’s what the consumers want. 

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