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Thursday, June 22, 2017

GM mustard

Thursday, 15 June 2017 12:25
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The government does not appear to have allowed the logic and privilege prevail before giving approval for Genetically Modified mustard for environmental release because a key hurdle remains before the farmers can cultivate it. Though Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), an Environment Ministry has approved GM mustard before it can be cultivated by the farmers in the country, where traditionally old seeds are still being put to use for increasing productivity. Traditional methods have been used along with Bio-Technological engineered seeds for crop enhancement in the country when they are being modified in agriculture universities in the country. After the Green Revolution that ensured self-sufficiency in foodgrains production in the 1970s, some successful attempts have been made for increasing productivity of other crops that have been vital for feeding teeming millions of hungry people at affordable costs. Last time, in 2009 the GEAC approved Bt brinjal, developed by Mahyco and the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, for commercial release in the country. The then Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh overruled the GEAC clearance in 2010 and changed its status from an approval committee to an 'appraisal' committee when there was hue and cry among farmers. The issue before the present ministry is to go by the expert findings of the GEAC and decide the issue on scientific merits, or opt for a replay of the Bt brinjal case. Broadly, the then government's exceptionalism on Bt brinjal was framed along these lines: it was an edible substance unlike Bt cotton; long-term studies may be required to check its safety and environmental impact. At that the farmers' argument was considered valid for the reasons that price of brinjal produce in the market did not increase and was the cheapest commodity available in the market. The income of the farmers was not to witness an increase so there was no point in increasing the productivity. To study the environmental impact, it involved technology developed by the multi-national Monsanto (which had an indirect stake in Mahyco). On the other hand, GM mustard was developed by a team of scientists at Delhi University led by former vice-chancellor Deepak Pental under a government-funded project. In the case of GM Mustard, it uses three genes from soil bacterium that makes self-pollinating plants such as mustard amenable to hybridisation. This translates that the local crop developers have the equivalent of a platform technology to more easily develop versions of mustard with custom traits such as higher oil content and pest resistance. It has also gone through safety and toxicity tests prescribed by the regulator, but this is unlikely to convince opponents of GM technology. Many of them are opposed to the commercial release of any form of transgenic plants; they fear that introducing genes from soil bacterium or other forms of animal life into plants will amount to playing with the natural order of plant life. The proponents of GM crops say plants and animals are constantly swapping bacterial genes with air, soil and water, and also that the only way of determining if a gene can produce proteins toxic to humans is to subject it to a systematic testing process. Years of field tests on transgenic corn, soyabean and brinjal in other countries have shown no health risks that vary with their non-GM versions. The concern that GM mustard employs a gene that will compel farmers to use specific farm chemical and be dependent on one or two companies deserves serious attention. However, these are matters for the government, regulators, labour markets and the courts to decide. Farmers need technology, new knowledge and governmental support to get the best out of their seeds. Successive governments have failed to move on the draft National Biotechnology Regulatory Bill, 2008 that would enable a biotechnology regulator to take shape. In the absence of proper mechanism, such legislation, issues to be decided on the basis of science will be at the mercy of political expediency. The public feedback should also be taken in a democratic set up before a decision is taken that affects more than two-third of the population dependent on agriculture economy.


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