As India gets closer to the commercial release of its first genetically modified food crop – GM mustard – with the promise that the transgenic mustard will boost production thereby cutting on the huge import bill of edible oils, it has now become clear that the claims are largely unfounded. Five existing hybrid varieties outperform the transgenic variety DMH-11 developed by Delhi University, for which an approval is pending.
Among the five higher yielding mustard varieties are three in the same DMH series. The productivity of DMH-1 is higher by 11.35 per cent; DMH-4 by 14.70 per cent and DMH-3 by 3.54 per cent (see the chart below). No wonder, civil society groups under the banner of Coalition for GM Free India that made a presentation before the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the nodal agency whose clearance is obligatory, had rubbished the productivity claims of 26 per cent higher yield being claimed for GM Mustard. They had accused the developers of falsifying the data and comparing the yield performance of GM Mustard with some of the useless varieties.
I therefore can’t understand how will a GM variety with low productivity eventually help in cutting down on edible oil imports? In any case, the reason why India turned into world’s second biggest importer of edible oils over the years is not because of any shortfall in domestic production but because the country had encouraged cheaper imports by lowering the import tariffs.
Thirty years back, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi laid the foundations 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. In 1993-94, India was producing 97 per cent of its edible oil requirement within the country. Only 3 per cent of its edible oils need was being imported.
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.
Let us therefore 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 finally saddled with a huge import bill.
Although the sub-committee of the GEAC 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. The safety data has since then been partly uploaded on the GEAC website and people have been asked to travel to New Delhi, seek permission, if they want to view the complete dossier. In addition, public comments are sought in a period of 30 days and too in a truncated manner in a Performa that has been posted on the net.
Interestingly, the GEAC members are not at all perturbed that GM Mustard will increase the usage of chemical herbicides. They agreed that technically speaking DMH-11 is a herbicide tolerant mustard crop which means it will require the application of only one brand of herbicide to eradicate weeds but they feel that herbicide being expensive will not be used by farmers. In fact, what is not being explained is the clever stacking of herbicide tolerant genes in GM Mustard favouring 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. The harmful impacts of GM food for human health and environment notwithstanding I see no reason why the controversial GM technology be introduced in food. There is no shortage of mustard in the country and if the government is keen to reduce the import bill of edible oils it needs to bring back the policies and approach that helped India launch the Yellow Revolution. Raising import tariffs to at least 70 per cent and providing farmers with an attractive procurement price is what will help India turn the corner.
(Writer is a researcher, columnist, author, crusader on the issues of food and agricultural policy. He can be followed on his blog ‘Ground Reality’)