Deepak Pental claims on GM Mustard misleading
by Vipesh Garg on 02 Jul 2017 5 Comments
In an interview with Business World, 22 June 2017, Dr Deepak Pental made some assertions that were either false or vacuous and showed lack of knowledge of basic agriculture and socio-economics of Indian agriculture. The author found his thinking fragmented like that of many western-oriented scientists and students of mainstream agriculture institutions. He examines and rebuts Dr Pental’s arguments.


How long it took to develop the GM mustard?

It came after 20 years of effort. These years saw more than 40 research publications, and genetic engineering appraisal committee of government disbanding the research. Now, there is opposition against the GM mustard, our efforts are hung. I would rather say, “If government has guts, then approve it”. It is a pity that we spend billions of rupees to import edible oil; this is a direct loss to our farmers.


Garg: GM mustard having terminator/GURT technology provides no alternative. Rather it forces farmers to purchase seed and basta every year from markets monopolised by few seed companies. Dr Pental does not have any strategy to counter the monopoly of mustard seed, as happened with Bt cotton.


Traditional plant breeding methods take 10-12 years (max.) to mix any kind of diverse genetic blood (inter- and intra-specific) even in self-pollinated plants. Dr Pental is arguing that BBB (barnase-barstar-bar gene) is technology to make hybridization easy and they are having combinations which they would release once GM mustard gets approved.


First, Mustard is a self-pollinated crop and seed rate of mustard is very less (1.5-2.0 kg/acre) so it is very viable to mix the diverse genetic blood through time tested traditional methods and then release open pollinated varieties in various combinations. Second, there is no dearth of traditional technologies to make hybrids in mustard family crops. The maximum area under hybrid vegetable cultivation in India is in cabbage, followed by cauliflower.

(See slightly dated figures here:


This shows there is no urgency of technology requirement for High Yielding Variety (HYV) hybrid seed production in mustard if genetic base is to be widened. The story of cauliflower and cabbage hybrid debunks the argument of superiority and necessity of unsafe and costly BBB technology. Arguments of higher yield have been debunked already. This shows how GM mustard is a scientific fraud and propaganda promoted by industry in the name of science and research and development (R&D).


Why have you been so critical about it; it takes time for communities to come to a consensus?

Indian Council for Agricultural Research had spent around Rs 300 crore to establish one institute to do similar research in Ranchi; then there is a huge amount of Rs 350 crore spent on the construction of National Bio-technology Institute in Chandigarh. I am unhappy because if every research has to have the same fate, why government wastes money on its progress and future possibilities.


Garg: Biotechnology does not mean only producing GM plant material and handing over biodiversity to a few corporations. There are lots of applications of any technology. Genetic engineering is simply a tool of biotechnology.


Dr Pental is implanting a false narrative that criticism of GM food means outright criticism of biotechnology. Biotechnology in the form of marker assisted selection (MAS), immuno-studies, pathogen detection, industry product developments etc., have many applications. There is no scope to doubt the basic education, R&D and infrastructure development by government. GM food is not desired in India for the following reasons:


1)      There is no alternative once GM mustard is sown, as with Bt cotton; farmers who saved, shared and swapped seeds will have to buy seed every year from the market.


2)    The experience with Bt cotton and debt-driven suicides, and socio-economics of Indian agriculture do not permit the deployment of fraud technologies when basic infrastructure like markets, social and credit support and value-chains are lacking


3)     Bio-safety issues and lack of transparent regulatory mechanism due to conflict of interest are major issues that have not been resolved. There is no bio-safety data in the public domain. Besides, the matter is sub-judice. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on GM crops and other relevant committees have raised serious questions about bio-safety, procedures of conducting of trails, conflict of interest and deficiencies in regulatory mechanism.


4)    There is a dire need to revisit basic plant genetics procedures regarding conservation and plant genetic resources (PGR), and Vavilov’s centre of biodiversity. India has huge plant diversity, and specifically of mustard species, unlike the United States, Canada, and Australia. Unlike countries where a single or few species of mustard has been grown, we have a huge diversity of cultivated mustard. Our farmers have quality local /traditional seeds which are acclimatized to local soils, climate and insect pests, and are less resource-intensive. 


5)     Despite less spraying of chemicals than many developed countries, India already has high minimum residue level (MRL) in our food crops. It has been widely reported that GM crops lead to superweeds and superpests (cotton is a live example). This increases the chances of more poisoning and contamination of food, and increases the chances of higher level of resistance among weeds and pests against chemicals.


6)    GM mustard is a Trojan horse, behind which is a hidden design by kept scientists and journalists to help a few seed giants hijack the seed-biodiversity and agriculture of India, and food system as a whole. The seed biodiversity which was vested with small, tribal and women farmers, will move into seed vaults or seed banks of foreign multinationals. (


What about other nations?

We should learn from China, if any company invests in China for genetic research, they ask them to do it with Chinese partnership; they have recently bought Syngenta in a multi-billion dollar deal; now they have all the molecules owned by Syngenta. Suggest me a single company of India who could have done the same for agriculture. We still blame Monsanto for BT cotton issue, but this is how a company does its business, they are also responsible for shareholders.


Garg: We do not know the real story inside China, so I will avoid comment. However, China does not feed GM food to its army because GM food crops are not healthy, nutritious or productive.


Our age-old philosophy says Jaisa aan vaisa man (we are what we eat), our bodies are nothing but accumulation of food, part of Mother Earth. We have been killing the soil for greed and so our consciousness dying. The same is the case with GM food. It comes from impotent, infertile, molecularly disturbed plants, so it affects the balance of human and other life forms.

What is your opinion about the recommendations of Swaminathan commission?

The best part of that report was the critical assessment of farmers’ profit, which was to be one and half times of his investment, as recommended in report. I personally think Swaminathan commission report lacks the part of technology transfer to farmers. Technology transfer and improvement can do changes, the same way it has done to information technology.


Garg: Most of our scientists lack common sense. We already have bumper crops of edible oils and pulses last rabi season, and see what happened throughout the country in the last few days precisely because of bumper crops. So where is the food shortage that needs to be made up? We need cold storages at district level to save the bumper harvests.


When these scientists are asked about the total failure of Bt cotton, they try to dodge the issue or shift the blame. Pental’s statement that, “We still blame Monsanto for BT cotton issue, but this is how a company does its business, they are also responsible for shareholders”, is shameful. He is more worried about Monsanto shareholders than about the Indian farmer and the ruination of Indian soils via this failed crop. We cannot afford this approach anymore.


What should government do for farmers’?

Government should allow retails to reach farmers. We normally witness similar agricultural produce on a specific zone; if retails get involved they will pick it from farmers, giving them relief from a mountain task of bearing transportation expenses. I do not want to comment on the functioning of Food Corporation of India. Government can’t do everything on its own.

Garg: Actually it would have been helpful if Dr Pental spoke out regarding the functioning of FCI and the lack of basic infrastructure. There is lack of integration between the farm and the market and the consumer.


Your views on farmer suicides?

I have been involved with academics for a long time, there is no shortage of psychology experts in universities. Government must fund universities for field research, if experts visit farmers, they will counsel them and I find it more helpful. As far as loan repayments are concerned, every banker will follow poor farmers as they are easy to catch. None catches the big fish.


Garg: This is ridiculous. We have fragmented and destroyed the natural social support system of farmers. What can psychologists and researchers do for farmers? The farmer needs basic infrastructure and support. 


We need to restore the basic infrastructure, credit infrastructure, decentralization, local agriculture, traditional knowledge base and local seeds to resuscitate Indian agriculture. We also need to make our armchair scientists visit farmers’ fields. Farms and farmers are not factory and workers to produce food. They have dignity, self-respect and rich-traditional knowledge which must be respected.


Finally, we need to stop planting false information. We import edible oil worth $10 billion (roughly 67,000 crore), but most of this is oil palm and soyabean oil. We are almost self-sufficient in mustard oil



The false argument that GM mustard would make India edible oil sufficient must stop now. Low import duties (which is why we are importing 60 per cent of edible oils) and lack of policy vision are the main reasons for the imbalance in the Indian agricultural basket.


Governments, scientists and policy makers need enlightenment and the will to provide basic infrastructure and support to our farmers.


For Pental interview, see:

See also: “Challenging the narrative of GM mustard”


The author is an under graduate from Chaudhary Charan Singh Haryana Agricultural University, Hissar, Haryana, and post-graduate from Punjab Agriculture University, Ludhiana, Punjab

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