Some valuable lessons from Bt Cotton were who funds research and development and who will distribute the seeds
Genetically modified (GM) mustard recently received the Centre’s environmental clearance. The approval received severe backlash, with the critics pointing out how little we know about the long-term effects of GM crops. The criticism raises the question, what should we want to know about GM crops?
Bt cotton was the first genetically modified (GM) crop that Government of India approved for commercial cultivation in 2002.
The next in line was Bt Brinjal, approved in 2009 by the biotechnology regulator Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC). The committee functions under the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.
Read more: GM Mustard: Doctors demand ban on crops, uprooting of trial plantations
However, a technical expert committee (TEC) constituted by the Supreme Court of India imposed a 10-year moratorium on any commercial release of GM seeds.
In October 2022, GEAC allowed the environmental release of GM mustard hybrid-Dhara Mustard Hybrid (DMH-11) developed by Delhi University for its seed production and testing before its commercial release.
The commercial use of DMH-11 may increase the yield by 25-30 per cent over the existing traditional hybrid varieties, the government claimed. GM mustard will also increase the output of oilseeds in the country, which is currently around 1,200 kg/hectare as against the average global yield of 2,000 kg/hectare, it further claimed.
Thus, it justified the introduction of GM mustard to bring the country’s self-sustenance in the production and consumption of edible oil and decrease dependency on imports.
However, GEAC’s decision on GM mustard has spurted a wide-ranging debate and led to various court petitions. The opponents raised concerns about the fact that it is herbicide-tolerant mustard, which is unsustainable and does not suit Indian agricultural conditions.
Secondly, the mustard variety may adversely affect bio-diversity, rural livelihoods, ecology, human beings, and livestock health. However, we should discuss what matters to us beyond these points of disagreement.
Around 33.22 million tonnes of oilseeds were produced in 2019-20, according to the oil division of the Department of Food and Public Distribution under Government of India. The oilseeds provided 10.7 million tonnes of net domestically produced edible oil.
The government had to import 13.42 million tonnes of edible oil in the same period — around 55.7 per cent of the total edible oil consumption — to meet the domestic demand.
In its affidavit to the Supreme Court of India, the Centre claimed that around 55,000 tonnes of canola oil and 280,000 million tonnes of soybean oil imported annually are largely produced through GM seeds.
So, the government claims that India is already importing and consuming oil derived from GM crops and opposing the DMH-11 variety of GM mustard will only harm the interest of the farmers, consumers and the oil industry in the country.
Read more: Will you be doomed if GM mustard is not approved now, apex court asks Centre
The health, environmental and ecological issues are subject to evidence-based critical scientific research. But we are concerned about a few broader socio-political and economic issues related to using GM mustard for commercial purposes.
These concerns are:
Experience and evidence show that in the case of Bt cotton seeds, the public sector had withdrawn its involvement and multinational corporations were facilitating it. In such a scenario, how will farmers’ interests be protected if the seeds fail to reap the desired results?
Therefore, if the government is serious about protecting farmers’ interests, it is necessary to enhance public investment in the R&D of new seed varieties that are more resilient and less harmful to the sustainability of the sector.
Second, public sector agencies should distribute the seeds to ensure good quality, fair price and equity in distribution and timely availability.
It can ensure maximum benefit to the farming community at large, where more than two-thirds of the farmers are marginal and small and are often reluctant to introduce new varieties due to the fear of rising costs and unpredictable outcomes.
Third, it is worth mentioning that yield of a particular crop depends not merely on the variety of seeds used for cultivation but also on the farming techniques, use of fertilisers and pesticides, availability of water and quality of soil etc.
Therefore, all other factors of production should also be considered while claiming the gains from a particular variety of seeds.
The public investment in major infrastructure that enhances the capacity of the sector through improvement in soil, water and overall farm practices has not been prioritised as a large share of budgetary spending is provided to individual farmer-centric schemes such as PM Kisan.
The government claims to ensure the greater interest of the farmers through an increase in the production and productivity of mustard.
Read more: DTE Coverage: Does India really need GM mustard
However, past experiences with various crops show that a substantial increase in production causes a sharp decline in farm-gate prices, hampers the farmers’ price realisation and causes massive losses.
Bt Cotton is one example where the bumper crop led to a sharp price decline. It is, thus, essential to underscore the fact that government must ensure the remunerative price of the output when new seeds result in bumper crops.
Finally, bio-safety studies should be conducted to examine the impact of GM seeds on humans and the environment before taking any further steps. Some of these questions are more pertinent to investigate rather than justifying and/or not justifying the developments concerning seed innovations.
Santosh Verma, Gurpreet Singh and Nilachala Acharya work with Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), New Delhi
Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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