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So are the protests against the regulator GEAC’s lack of scientific rigour, due processes and a remarkable reluctance to prioritize the safety of life and environment.

Genetically modified food is back in the news after the regulator Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) recommended “environmental release” of GM Mustard, billed as an indigenously developed transgenic hybrid or a “swadeshi” product, on October 18, 2022. This is the same DMH-11 – carrying barnase and barstar genes from soil bacterium Bacillus amyloliquefaciens – which the GEAC had recommended for “commercial” cultivation five years ago, in 2017, but the Centre held back its approval due to strong protests.

Protest is back too, with two RSS affiliates, Swadesh Jagran Manch (SJM) and Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) taking the lead by seeking not only a ban on DMH-11 but also a probe by central agencies into the “unholy” nexus in the approval process. The Coalition for GM-free India, a civil society group, has also sought a ban on it.

If the Centre approves it now, this would be the first genetically modified food to be cultivated in India.

India allows only Bt Cotton, a genetically modified non-food crop. Here is a shocking fact. Bt Cotton was introduced clandestinely in 2002 by the Vajpayee-led NDA government. A Supreme Court-appointed panel, which looked at it, said in its 2012 report that the test details were never made public, the approval process was rigged and there was no debate inside or outside the Parliament before its release.

A couple of years earlier in 2010, the UPA-II had denied permission for commercial cultivation of Bt Brinjal (food), which the GEAC had recommended – because bio-safety tests were self-certified and many essential tests had not been conducted, which the GECA had overlooked.

The current GEAC recommendation allows “environmental release” for (i) “seed production and testing” prior to its commercial release and (ii) for field studies “to generate scientific evidences” for its impact on “honey bees and other pollinators” – a post-environmental release test!

The protest now, like in 2017, is against the GEAC’s lack of scientific rigour and suspicion that the processes are rigged. Some key points.

  1. What if DMH-11 turns out harmful to honey bees and other pollinators? What can the GEAC do once the genie is out? Interestingly, while not disclosing what changed after 2017 for it to give it another shot, the GEAC’s minutes disclosed that an “expert committee” looked at the issue and advocated for post-release field tests with the argument that “based on the examination of scientific evidences available globally, and as per the recommendations of concerned ministries, it seems unlikely that the bar, barnase, and barstar system will pose an adverse impact on honey bees and other pollinators”.
  2. DMH-11 is not indigenously developed by the Delhi University under Dr Deepak Pental’s guidance 20 years ago – as it has been claimed since 2017.Ashwani Mahajan of the SJM wrote a letter to environment minister Bhupender Yadav on October 28 – a copy of which is with CFA – exposing this falsehood. He wrote that DMH-11 was developed by Germany company Bayer’s subsidiary Proagro Seed Company, which had, in fact, applied for commercial approval for a similar product in 2002 but was turned away because their field trials “did not give evidence of superior yield”. Mahajan also pointed out that the bar-barstar-barnase gene is “a patented technology of Bayer Crop Science”.
  3. DMH-11 is herbicide-tolerant, but the GEAC doesn’t even allow herbicide use by farmers!

The GEAC minutes strongly warn that “usage of any formulation of herbicide is not permitted in the farmer’s field under any situation” and that such use would “require the necessary permission as per the procedures and protocols of safety assessment of insecticides/ herbicides by CIB&RC”. Why did it then allow DMH-11 which needs the use of herbicide?

Did the GEAC miss the irony or betrayed its complicity?

It didn’t identify the herbicide in question but Mahajan did, in his letter, as “glufosinate” and wrote, DMH-11 had “never been” tested as herbicide-tolerant crop “at all” and that the development of this glufosinate-tolerant crop “was in violation of India’s pesticides regulations”. Further, he pointed out, “Bayer will benefit the most” through its existing brands if glufosinate is allowed.

  1. Mahajan also disputed the claim that DMH-11 yield is higher than indigenous mustards. He wrote that the data from Bharatpur-based Directorate of Rapeseed-Mustard Research (DRMR) showed, on the contrary, several existing non-GM mustard hybrids yield 25% more than DMH-11. He alleged the DMH-11 yield data was “rigged”, “deceptive” and “manipulated” to hide facts.
  2. What the last three points illustrate is that DMH-11 is not an indigenous product, and it will reduce edible oil imports by raising production and thereby, not save foreign exchange – as the office of Principal Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister is claiming.
  3. Such is the opacity that neither the GEAC nor the environment ministry under which it works has made this decision public. It came to public notice only after the minutes of the GEAC’s October 18 meeting were released later.

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