GM Mustard: Doctors demand ban on crops, uprooting of trial plantations

Over 100 doctors across India submit letter to PM Modi warning of health concerns

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Tuesday 06 December 2022
The letter by the doctors urged uprooting of any seeds that have been planted before they reach the flowering stage. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The letter by the doctors urged uprooting of any seeds that have been planted before they reach the flowering stage. Photo: Wikimedia Commons The letter by the doctors urged uprooting of any seeds that have been planted before they reach the flowering stage. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Doctors across India have come together to express their concern against the plantation of genetically modified (GM) mustard crops, which recently received the Centre’s go-ahead for its environmental clearance.

A letter has been submitted by 111 doctors across various fields to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, demanding immediate uprooting of the trial plantations of the genetically modified Dhara Mustard Hybrid (DMH) -11. The doctors warned of the possible health concerns introduced in the food system by the crop.

GM mustard was approved for its environmental release October 18, 2022, by the central biotech regulator, Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC). The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) Directorate of Rapeseed Mustard Research (DRMR) procured two kilos of GM mustard from its inventor and geneticist, Deepak Pental.

Read more: Are GM crops a real solution to pest attacks in Africa?

When Down To Earth visited the director of ICAR-DRMR, P K Rai, November 4, he had denied the trial plantation of GM mustard. However, November 14, 2022, he admitted the seeds were planted on six occasions before the Supreme Court hearing was scheduled November 3.

Speaking with DTE about the disclosure, Rai said he had received orders from higher officials about not disclosing the information and that the right to share details was up to the higher authorities. 

“If you have further questions, speak to concerned officials from ICAR in Delhi,” he said, adding that the entire two kilos of seeds have been sown across the six locations.

The information about the plantation has raised panic among doctors, who fear the toxic chemicals and unknown consequences of GM crop on humans.

“We are deeply concerned about the dangerous ‘environmental release’ of a genetically modified (GM) mustard DMH-11 and its two parental lines which are tolerant to the herbicide glufosinate ammonium,” said the letter signed by Dr Rupal M Dalal, Pediatrics, Mumbai and others. 

“In the case of GM mustard, a patently untenable claim is being made, including in submissions to the Supreme Court, that the herbicide glufosinate will only be used for seed production and that farmers will be prevented by legislation from spraying it for weed control,” Dalal wrote. 

However, illegal HT cotton and spraying of toxic herbicide glyphosate remained uncontrolled for over a decade without governments being able to put a stop to it, she further said. 

Read more: Who is watching GM crops?

“The Herbicide Tolerance (HT) Genetic Modification of DMH-11 mustard and its parental lines enable the spraying of the herbicide, glufosinate, which will be absorbed as higher toxic chemical residues by this GM HT mustard, passed on downstream to consumers,” Dalal said in the letter.

The move will disregard the recommendations made by three high-level committees, Dalal added. These are the technical expert committee of the Supreme Court, 2013; parliamentary standing committee report from 2014 and 2017, including a unanimous report of two parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party, which recommended a blanket ban on herbicide tolerant crops for Indian conditions.

“We urge the uprooting of any seeds that have been planted before they reach the flowering stage and DMH-11 spreads irreversibly,” the letter urged.

Over the past 25 years, the inefficiency and irreversible risks of GM crops have rendered seen little acceptance as only five countries amount to the global 91 per cent of the global GM area, the medical professionals said, citing data from International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, a global non-profit organisation. 

Many of the feared apprehensions by scientists have turned out to be true, the doctor added. As per the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food at the United Nations General Assembly’s Human Rights Council in 2017, herbicides are dangerous pesticides.

“Pesticide exposure has been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, hormone disruption, developmental disorders and sterility. They can also cause numerous neurological health effects, such as memory loss, loss of coordination, reduced visual ability and reduced motor skills. Chronic effects of pesticides may not manifest for months or years after exposure,” she said.

Genetic modification with the genes bar, bacterial protein Barnese and barstar, used to prepare GM mustard seed has never been a part of the human diet. He further said that introducing the genes can create novel proteins with unknown impacts. 

“We are shocked that GEAC has, to date, not put biosafety test data up for peer review despite an order by the Central Information Commissioner in 2016 calling for it and despite Supreme Court orders on the same,” she said.

We also understand that the necessary long-term, intergenerational and other biosafety tests have not been done and the limited tests done on GM mustard (lesser in number than were taken up for Bt brinjal even though mustard is grown on 11-fold more area), Dalal added. 

The hurried approvals of DMH-11 as safe for environment release by GEAC makes it highly questionable and objectionable, she said.

Read more: Debating GM crops: Let sound science, and so good sense, inform it

No independent testing laboratory verifying the safety claims by GM developers despite recommendations was disturbing, the letter said. “A body should be immediately set up for the same,” she said.

“The experience of denial of harm by crop developers and regulators for glyphosate and the eventual revelations of harm should be a warning for us about the risks of glufosinate ammonium,” the letter further said.

In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer World Health Organization defined glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” Dalal added.

“The United States’ regulators supported the developers’ contention that glyphosate was safe. GMO labelling was mandated from January 2022 only after US courts began imposing penalties of millions of dollars on biotechnology corporation Monsanto (now Bayer),” she said, adding that over $10 billion was paid by Bayer to settle about 100,000 claims mainly of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. 

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