GM Mustard: An open letter to the Prime Minister
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 26 Aug 2017 5 Comments
Respected dear Prime Minister,



I have chosen to write to you directly on a subject that is of paramount importance to the health of millions of Indians. As a responsible scientist, I have a mandate for good global science.


Makka ki roti aur sarson ka sag”. Why has makka suddenly taken centre stage? Without going into the scientific controversy, or activism, which now surrounds the controversial DMH-II GM (genetically modified) mustard, which Delhi University scientists pioneered under the direction of Dr Pental, the former Vice Chancellor  of the University,  there are some incontrovertible facts you, respected Prime Minister, must understand when there could be pressures from different quarters on you to give the green signal to its commercial cultivation in India.


India is an important centre of origin for both mustard and brinjal. Mention of mustard in Sanskrit texts dates back to more than 3000 BC. One of the basic tenets in producing transgenic crops (genetically modified or GM crops) is that no gene tampering be done with a crop/plant in a geographic place of its origin, because of subsequent gene transfer through pollen spread, which might result even in creating super weeds, as had happened in the UK with some GM crops.  


The best example is of makka or maize. Mexico in the backyard of the USA falls in the Andean region where maize (or corn as referred to in USA) originated. Despite all pressures, political or otherwise, from the USA, this tiny nation has said an emphatic “NO” to the development of transgenic maize.


We have the example of the Bt brinjal, not very distant in our memory. Notwithstanding all the fraudulent “scientific” data Mahyco, the Indian arm of the agribusiness giant Monsanto, provided, the Independent Expert Committee, constituted by the Hyderabad-based Centre For Sustainable Agriculture, comprising some eminent members, of which I had the privilege to be the Chairman, said an unambiguous “NO” to Bt brinjal, because, like mustard, the Indian sub-continent is the place of origin for brinjal.  


On a more worrying note, I may add that the current controversial DMH-II mustard, produced at an enormous cost to the taxpayer, is an HT or Herbicide Tolerant variety, more specifically to herbicide BASTA, produced by Bayer, the German Agribusiness giant, which has now bought up Monsanto, and stands as the biggest agribusiness company in the world.  


In other words, spraying BASTA will kill all the weeds, except DMH-II. The hidden message to the mustard farmer is clear - plant DMH-II and spray BASTA.


Respected Prime Minister,

In India, weeding in mustard crop is still done by farm women. Think of the enormous loss of livelihood to these poor farm women. A conservative estimate shows that even 25 per cent adoption of GM herbicide tolerant mustard in India would lead to the loss of a crore employment days for these poor women. What is the alternative source of livelihood for these poor women?


But, the danger of using BASTA for sustainable agriculture does not stop there. It contains an active ingredient called glufosinate, which is a neurotoxin, like glyphosate which is a carcinogen, banned by World Health Organization (WHO), but used in Monsanto’s “Round Up” herbicide for use in GM soybean produced by Monsanto.


The millions of children born with birth defects in Argentina, where the “Round Up Ready Soybean” of Monsanto has been extensively cultivated, is a tragic and shameful record of what transgenic crops have done to unsuspecting human beings, through these multinational companies. Do you want such a mammoth health risk imposed on innocent Indians who do not know what portends the cultivation of DMH-11 mustard?


From what I have learnt, there is no data on the performance of DMH-II in all the agro-climatic regions of India, which has widely varying soils. Mustard is grown in 3-4 different agro-ecological zones of India and the performance of the DMH-II refer to just one location.


The reason why 19 countries of the European Union (EU) have banned GM crops is because EU countries have, as a matter of principle, budgeted for bias-free education on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and other toxic substances. It is the perpetuation of all-round ignorance, both among producers and consumers, that we see in India which must be halted and reversed to prevent the destruction of Indian environment.


As a responsible scientist, I would like to ask, does India need a transgenic mustard? The answer is clearly in the negative, primarily because the current DMH-II being propagated is a lower yielder than any of the hybrid mustard currently under cultivation in India, for instance the popular variety Kranti, but, with attendant grave environmental hazards. Kranti is a normally produced hybrid, a much better yielder than DMH-II. So, what is the politics behind pushing this hazardous DMH-II?


Respected Prime Minister,

I humbly request you to ruminate on this critical question which will adversely affect the health of millions of Indians, without any tangible economic benefit to the mustard farmer, but with attendant problems like displacement of millions of poor farm women labour, including lower yield.


In this connection, it might be educative to see what the Supreme Court appointed Technical Expert Committee had to say about GM crops, in general. It said “Every GMO must prove in the first instance that it is needed, satisfying all the relevant criteria of yield/trait superiority, before being allowed to proceed to an evaluation of the GMO in a comprehensive and rigorous risk management protocol conducted by independent experts”. Most unfortunately, in the case of the controversial and dangerous DMH-II, it has now been recommended for commercial cultivation by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee in New Delhi, without foolproof biosafety data. What is the politics behind this?


Under these worrying circumstances in the backdrop, may I humbly suggest setting up an independent, rigorous and competent international committee of experts in GMO risk management and genetic toxicological evaluation of genetically engineered crops which must review the biosafety dossier of the now controversial DMH-II?

Concomitantly, a national consensus might be developed, like what the former minister of environment and forests Jairam Ramesh of UPA-II did, to interact with scientists, farmers, stake holders, including activists, pro and against the GM mustard, to arrive at a consensus as was done by him in the case of Bt brinjal.


The nation will say whether we need a GM mustard or not. If “No” is the answer, please recommend a moratorium for at least ten years, until Indian experts come up with a variety that passes all biosafety tests. Perhaps, you are now worried about the huge import bill for cooking oil, mustard oil included. But then, may I humbly submit, at this juncture, you should not choose the dangerous path, but follow a path of caution and wisdom, with concern primarily for the health and welfare of Indians uppermost in your mind.


Please accept my very distinguished regards, Mr Prime Minister

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