Mulling over mustard

| Updated on January 11, 2018 Published on May 12, 2017

GM varieties should be promoted in a responsible way

After close to two decades of research, essentially by government bodies in the case of genetically modified mustard, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) attached to the ministry of environment has recommended commercialisation of the crop. If Environment Minister Anil Dave gives the green signal and the Supreme Court too approves (it has stayed the commercialisation of GM mustard), mustard will be the first GM food crop to be grown in India. The RSS-affiliated Swadeshi Jagaran Manch and anti-GMO activists have already voiced their disapproval, possibly exerting pressure on the minister to do what the UPA’s Jairam Ramesh did seven years ago in the case of Bt brinjal (in which the bacillus thuringiensis gene is introduced): impose a moratorium on its release. The only GM plant to be grown in India is Bt cotton, since 2002. In its hearing last October, the Supreme Court had asked the Centre to seek public opinion on GM mustard before going ahead. If the apex court does lift its stay, it could clear the way for the spread of Bt brinjal and other transgenic varieties. Farmers and scientists would welcome the move for the improvements in yield, even as concerns over the health and environmental consequences of GM technology, perhaps a trifle overblown, refuse to die away.

However, the Centre must allay apprehensions that surfaced in the case of the Bt brinjal trials. A body of scientific opinion had then said that the GEAC had not observed due process in carrying out the tests, prompting Ramesh to reverse the committee’s decision. It was also argued that the agency developing the plant variety should not be involved in the field trials. An independent body, with multiple stakeholders, should take a call on issues related to GM. The fact that Europe has by and large shut its doors on GM foods, even as the US and Latin American countries have accepted them, only shows that public opinion remains divided and confused on this subject. All the more reason, then, to have an open regulatory regime that demystifies the technology and is transparent in its functioning.

GM foods promise a way out of a potential Malthusian trap, arguably with less pesticide use in the short run than existing varieties. After decades of heated debate, it would seem that the truth lies somewhere between the claims of the evangelists and the naysayers. In the case of GM mustard, where yields are expected to rise by up to 30 per cent, it is also worth looking at other ways to achieve a similar result. Above all, the right institutions are required to move ahead with an open mind.

Published on May 12, 2017
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