Scientists write to PM against ICAR ‘gag order’ on GM mustard

Health and safety of crops draw concern from scientific community

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Tuesday 10 January 2023
Sardarkrushinagar Dantiwada Agricultural University has developed a hybrid mustard that has outdone the yield claimed by the promoters of the GM mustard produced by the Delhi University South Campus, according to non-profit Salim Ali Foundation. Photo: iStock

Scientists, public representatives and environmentalists have joined hands to condemn a “gag order” by the Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare on genetically modified (GM) mustard crop, Dhara Mustard Hybrid (DMH-11). The community has written to the environment minister and the Prime Minister against it.

The Secretary for the Department of Agriculture Research and Education (DARE) under the ministry, Himanshu Pathak, released a statement December 23, 2022 on “myths being spread about GM mustard”.

Read more: Centre’s response on GM mustard proves regulatory violations, claim activists

The secretary’s statement said:

Therefore, a statement is being issued in public interest to clarify that any opinion or article published on the subject by anyone not authorised or former employees of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) different from the stated documentation and decisions made by the regulatory authorities functioning under the EPA (1986) are not endorsed by the Council and are subjectable to any administrative procedures required in public interest.

Pathak is also the director-general for ICAR.

Biotechnology regulator Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, under the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), had recommended the environmental release of GM mustard seeds for trials, demonstrations and seed productions October 18, 2022.

The scientific community has written to environment minister Bhupender Yadav and PM Narendra Modi against the instruction by government agencies. The order denies scientists the right to practise science by presenting evidence-based analysis, it said.

DARE/ICAR is trying to silence the voices of public sector scientists, said Sultan Ismail, soil biologist and ecologist, former head of the department of biotechnology, The New College, in a press note.

“It is invoking administrative procedures in the name of public interest. This is being extended to retired scientists not in the service of the government at present as well,” Ismail said.

Read more: Ahead of SC hearing on GM mustard, activists accuse Centre of misleading apex court

The scientist cited Article 51 (A) in the Constitution of India: “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper, humanism, the spirit of inquiry and reform.”

“This press release issued by DARE/ICAR is in direct contravention to our constitutional rights and fundamental duty as scientists to work with freedom,” Ismail added.

Pathak’s order is against the democratic ethos of the country, said Rajya Sabha Member Binoy Viswam.

“This is clearly a gag order aimed at silencing questions and scientific discussions on issues like GM mustard vital to our farmers with possible long-term implications. The absence of important data and results of biosafety and field trial data in the public domain clearly shows ICAR has a lot to hide from public view,” he said.

“GM crops have not resulted in a substantial increase in yields. Ten years of Bt cotton farming in India has shown this unmistakably,” said a media statement by non-profit Salim Ali Foundation. The organisation works as an advocate for sustainable development and conservation of biological diversity.

GM crops have attracted new pests and demand more usage of pesticides and fertilisers as against contradictory claims, said V S Vijayan, honorary chairman of the foundation.

“Herbicide-tolerant GM crops introduced in many countries have resulted in the emergence of unmanageable superweeds. They also pose threats to insects and other biodiversity of the area,” he said.

Feeding trials with GM food showed adverse impacts on trial animals in the majority of the cases, the foundation’s statement further said. Genetically modified organisms (GMO) lead to genetic contamination of local varieties via cross-pollination and cause irreversible damage to biodiversity, it added,

Developers’ claim that GM mustard productivity is higher by around 25 per cent was also contested by Vijayan.

Read more: Activists cite violations of statutory regulations in GM mustard approval ahead of SC hearing

“Latest reports show that the Sardarkrushinagar Dantiwada Agricultural University in north Gujarat, one of the major mustard research centres in India, has developed a hybrid mustard that has outdone the yield claimed by the promoters of the GM mustard produced by the Delhi University South Campus,” he said.

The foundation further questioned the impact of three genes used in engineering GM mustard that are herbicide tolerant.

“Herbicide tolerance trait has created problems world over due to its negative impact on ecology, creation of unmanageable super weeds and deleterious impact on rural health,” Vijayan said.

The introduction of GM mustard will also impact honey bees and honey trade as the product will be rejected by countries aboard, he said.

Even if the regulatory system is tightened to make it fool-proof, one cannot assess the full impact of GM crops in the open environment in a short period, said the non-profit statement.

“It would take decades to assess the impacts of a particular GM crop on agro biodiversity by cross-pollination and its deleterious effects on human and animal health,” Vijayan said.

The foundation also cited the case of Bt brinjal, recalling the moratorium on the crop by MoEF&CC in February 2010.

The moratorium mentioned, “until such time independent scientific studies establish, to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals, the safety of the product from the point of view of its long-term impact on human health and environment”.

There has been no change in the situation since and there was no need to consider GM mustard crop, the foundation stated.

Read more: No GM Mustard for now; Centre puts commercial release on hold following protests

It also referred to a multidisciplinary and multi-stakeholder study by International Assessment of Agricultural Science, Technology and Development (IAASTD).

The study was sponsored by the World Bank in partnership with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, the UN Environment Programme, the UN Development Programme and the World Health Organization.

The assessment found that “techniques such as genetic engineering are no solution for soaring food prices, hunger and poverty.” Organic/ecological farming, which was authored by 400 agriculture scientists across 150 countries, including India, was recommended instead.

Many countries have adopted policies against GM crops, the foundation pointed out. “Many countries who introduced them are banning it progressively and 17 countries in Europe have banned it. Why is there a hurry to introduce the same technology in India without making a proper impact study?” Vijayan said.

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