A dash of mustard

After Bt cotton, it's now GM mustard; where is our scientific community?

Published: Saturday 30 November 2002

it's another case of dj vu. After the drama we witnessed over the clearance of Bt cotton for commercial cultivation, it is now genetically modified (gm) mustard that's on the line. The inter-ministerial Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (geac) met and deferred a decision on this oilseed, because of "multiple interpretation" of data pertaining to its bio-safety and agronomic aspects of mustard hybrids.

While we are glad a hasty decision has not been taken, since it is a question of a food crop, one is aghast at the lack of credible scientific evidence that would have allowed the committee to take a quick decision. This is the height of incompetence that the company, Proagro Seeds, was itself asked to conduct large-scale trials of its gm mustard hybrids. No doubt, the issues involved in Bt cotton and those in gm mustard are quite different. But one must not forget that we consume the seeds, the oil extracted from them as well as the leaves. And mustard has a number of wild cousins. Any doubts over health impacts and genetic contamination must be clearly set at rest through a stringent regimen of research conducted by state institutes and conducted fast. Why, one wonders, were institutes like the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (icar) not directed to conduct the trials? We boast about having one of the largest scientific humanpower in the world. But they all seem to be missing every time there is a scientific policy decision to be taken.

There are critical issues in gmos that cannot be ignored, particularly now that a string of gm crops are lining up for clearance. We must have a very strong legislation and monitoring system in place as also a well-structured labelling mechanism to meet the advent of gm crops world-wide. But the moot question is how many of our farmers will understand the implications of this or even take cognisance of the warning?

Right now the challenge of balance before us is the economic advantage that would accrue from the gm crops on one hand and, on the other, the possible health and environmental fall-outs against which we must guard ourselves. Dithering and deferring will not resolve the problem. We must understand the issue and quickly act. Above all transparency is essential so that information is available to all involved. This is vital. Multinationals are there to lobby and farmers will cultivate gm crops legally or clandestinely. There are lessons to be learnt from the Bt cotton experience.

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