Genetically modified (GM) food, w12hich had sparked intense national debate for years during the UPA-II and which had led to an indefinite moratorium on Bt brinjal in 2010, is a cause of concern again after the Centre permitted “environmental release” (one step away from “commercial release”) of GM mustard (DMH-11 hybrid) on October 18, 2022. The Supreme Court is now hearing the case – a continuation of long-pending litigations relating to GM crops beginning in 2004 (after Bt cotton was released in 2002).

Why does the Centre want GM mustard (DMH-11), which is also herbicide-resistant (HT), to be released into the environment without first establishing its need and efficacy? It raises many critical questions but the most basic one is about the misleading claims about its objectives.

The Centre’s affidavit of November 9, 2022, explaining its position to the court says, it is driven by three commitments: (i) increase in farm productivity (edible oil and legume) to make India self-sufficient (ii) increase in farmers’ income and (iii) cut in import bill (“55-60% of edible in India is imported”).

All three objectives hinge on one single factor: a higher yield of DMH-11. But does DMH-11 give a higher yield than hybrids and traditional varieties widely used in India?

Does GM mustard give a higher yield?

The Centre’s affidavit says a conditional yes. The sentence reads: “The GM mustard hybrid DMH-11 has shown increased per-hectare yield by 25-30% over the traditional varieties…”, adding, “due to exploitation of hybrid vigour”. The source of information is not revealed, nor is any other detail.

Note, despite the claim of “hybrid vigour”, the comparison is not with hybrids (many hybrids are cultivated in India for decades), but with “traditional varieties”. Varuna is a traditional variety of mustard, not a hybrid, which happens to be one of the parental varieties used for developing DMH-11 (the other is Early Heera 2).

The Centre’s 2016 affidavit was more specific: “No such claim has been made in any of the submitted documents that DMH 11 out-performs non-GMO hybrids. The comparison has only been made between hybrid DMH 11, NC (national check) Varuna and the appropriate ZC (zonal checks) – MSY of 2670 Kg/ha have been recorded over three years of BRL trials which is 28 per cent and 37 per cent more than the NC & ZC respectively”.

Note, here it is against Varuna only (in national and zonal checks).

The Centre is apparently relying on the claims of DMH-11’s current promoter, Prof Deepak Pental of the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP), Delhi University. On August 25, 2022, he told the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) – a statutory body which recommended DMH-11’s environmental release – that “on average, hybrid DMH-11 showed a 28% yield increase over the mega variety Varuna”.

On the other hand, the Centre’s nodal institute to carry out yield assessment – Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR)’s Directorate of Rapeseed and Mustard Research (DRMR) at Bharatpur – has denied claims of the superior yield of DMH-11.

On November 20, 2022, DRMR director PK Rai told a national daily that GM Mustard (DMH-11) “has not been tested according to ICAR protocol” and that “it has just entered our system. Once trial and studies are over, one will get a clear picture on actual yield of DMH-11”.

Rai also said DMH-11 had been sown in six field trial plots, before the Supreme Court’s injunction not to do so came (on November 3, 2022). Few know that the Centre approved the environmental release on the very day, October 18, 2022, and the GEAC recommended this. The Centre’s affidavit of November 9, 2022, disclosed this.

Why this extraordinary hurry when the matter is pending before the court and why is the comparison only with Varuna?

What Centre and GEAC missed on yield

The answer to the second part is simple. One, the DMH-11 yield is lower than at least four hybrids cultivated in India for decades.

This was revealed by a study of the very same CGMCP (current promoter).

CGMCP scientist Yashpal Singh Sodhi established this at a seminar in New Delhi on February 20, 2015 (organized by the Indian Society of Oilseed Research). His data showed four non-GM hybrids had higher yields and a fifth had nearly the same yield as that of DMH-11. His analysis was based on 2013-14 data. He did not include DMH-11 yield in his comparison but compared the yields of 14 mustard hybrids and non-hybrids.

His data showed, as against DMH-11’s yield of 2670 kg/ha (as the Centre claims), four hybrids had higher yields: NDDB-DMH-1 (2924 kg/ha), NDDB-DMH-3 (2719 kg/ha), NDDB-DMH-4 (3102 kg/ha), Pioneer-45S42 (2819 kg/ha) had higher yieldsThe fifth hybrid, UPL-Advanta-Coral432 (2644 kg/ha), had nearly the same yield.

Two, the DMH-11 yield is lower than traditional non-hybrid varieties too, but before that a backgrounder.

The benefits of the system of crop intensification (SCI) are widely known to the world, including India, for decades. Here, existing traditional and hybrid varieties of crops are taken but the management of plants, soil, water and nutrients is altered to give higher yields. Take the case of the system of rice intensification (SRI), practised in India for long. The Cornell University’s SRI International Network and Resources Center says about “60 countries” have adopted SRI and paddy yields have gone up by “20-100%”. Similar is the case with wheat (WIS) and finger millet, wheat, maize, sugarcane, tef, oilseeds (mustard), legumes (soya and kidney beans) and various vegetables.

For mustard, it is called the system of mustard intensification (SMI). Newspaper reports say the use of SMI gives yields 4000-5700 kg/ha – far more than the DMH-11 – in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal. Even without SMI, the indigenously developed Sitara Sringar of Rajasthan yields 3000-3500 kg/ha.

All the above facts negate the very raison d'être of DMH-11: higher yield in mustard would lead to self-sufficiency, raise farmers' income and cut import bills.

Is DMH-11 herbicide-tolerant (HT)?

Another critical concern involves the status of DMH-11 as a herbicide-tolerant (HT) crop.

This classification is important because India (a) doesn’t allow any HT crop and (b) doesn’t allow farmers to use herbicides in their fields.

In fact, the GEAC’s approval for DMH-11 (October 18, 2022) came with a rider: “Usage of any formulation of herbicide is not permitted for cultivation in the farmer's field under any situation and such use would require the necessary permission as per the procedures and protocols of safety assessment of insecticides/ herbicides by CIB&RC (Central Insecticides Board and Registration Committee).”

A few days later, on October 21, 2022, the Centre issued a gazette notification restricting the use of glyphosate to “any person except pest control operators” because it poses “health hazards and risk to human beings and animals”. This came after the action was sought by state governments against the sale and use of glyphosate following a surge in illegal cultivation of HTBt cotton. India allows Bt cotton (GMO) but not herbicide-tolerant Bt cotton variety – that is, HTBt cotton.

Now, it is well-known that DMH-11 is transgenic (GMO) as well as herbicide-tolerant (HT). The GEAC (August 25, 2022) clearly spelt out that one of the three foreign genes in it, bar “confers resistance to herbicide phosphinothricin – commercial name Basta”. The other two foreign genes in DMH-11 are barnase and barstar.

 The Centre’s affidavit too admits this but, refuses to call it an HT crop.

The affidavit argues that GM mustard “has not been developed as a Herbicide-tolerant technology” and that its “HT characteristic/trait” is pure because of the bar gene used as a marker “for eliminating fertile plants in the hybrid seed production plots”. Hence, it argues, it is “not appropriate” to call it HT crop. It further argues that such a label would be warranted only if “this trait is the sole reason for permitting GM mustard from the environmental angle”. It also tells that Indian farmers are “not permitted” to use herbicides “for the cultivation of GM mustard”.

Notwithstanding the wordplay, if an HT crop is permitted for cultivation, farmers would be tempted to use herbicides even if illegally as in the case of HTBt cotton. The reason is simple: the sale and import of herbicides are not illegal and the government can barely do more than issue notifications to restrict their use. On the other hand, the advantages of herbicides for farmers are plenty: all weeds are removed with one herbicide, saving labour costs and time. Farmers are unlikely to consider long-term adverse consequences for human lives and soil and water toxicity. Had that not been the case, Punjab wouldn’t have known for “cancer trains” or “cancer belt”.

The Centre’s wordplay is also because of strong opposition to GM food and HT crops without first establishing their need, cost-and-benefit analysis, due diligence and scientific rigour in tests for biosafety (human and environment) and removing the conflict of interests in the oversight and regulatory mechanism (GEAC). Besides, the predominance of small landholdings (86% of farmers small and marginal with less than 2 ha or 5-acre land) makes Indian farmers particularly vulnerable to contamination from GM and HT crops (if biosafety is not already established). Agro-climate conditions of India are another critical consideration in this.

Missing due diligence

It is the unscientific manner in which the GEAC and the Centre have acted, historically and now, which has sparked protests from scientists, farmers and rights groups. Both have approved GMOs (Bt cotton earlier and now an HT crop to boot) without adequately testing for human and environmental safety, efficacy and socio-economic consequences.

A Supreme Court-appointed technical expert committee (TEC), set up after the Bt brinjal controversy, was categorical in its 2013 report that (i) GM and HT crops (ii) crops of Indian origin (in which India is “the centre of origin or diversity”) “should not be allowed” unless there are “extraordinarily compelling reasons” and (iii) recommended a 10-year moratorium on field trials of all GM food crops unless the lax testing, regulatory and review mechanisms, including conflict of interest in regulatory and oversight mechanisms, are fixed first.

A Parliamentary Standing Committee of 2012 very much said the same thing. It “unanimously” recommended that field trials of GM crops “under any garb” should be “discontinued” until “all regulatory, monitoring, oversight, surveillance and other structures” were put in place.

Did anything change in clearance for DMH-11?

The answer is a clear no. Here is why.

One, the biosafety data on DMH-11 is not available in the public domain for scrutiny. The Centre’s affidavit says, the dossier on “food and environmental safety (AFES)” was uploaded on the official website for one month only, between September 5, 2016, to October 5, 2016, and its scrutiny was allowed in person “at the premises of the MoEF&CC” only.

Why such secrecy? All such data for Bt brinjal was available in public for years to be verified. 

Two, conflicts of interest in the testing and clearance process remain unchanged – to which both the TEC and parliamentary panel had particularly objected.

The DMH-11 project (of CGMCP) is (a) funded by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), along with another public entity NDDB (b) the biosafety risk test data was “generated” by CGMCP (self-certification exercise) and (c) the risk assessment report on the basis of this data was “prepared” by a DBT unit (Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation or RCGM).

Yet, a DBT official co-chairs the GEAC (final recommending authority), carrying a higher weightage (it is a technical post) than the other co-chair, an official of MoEF&CC (generally an IAS officer) – as the 2012 parliamentary panel had commented.

Three, the 2012 parliamentary panel had lamented that long-term environment impact assessment and chronic toxicology studies of GM crops had “not even been attempted till now”, nor socio-economic benefits of Bt cotton to farmers studied (it said “no significant socio-economic benefits” of Bt cotton as it is capital intensive, increased investment manifold, exposed farmers to “far greater risks due to massive indebtedness” and after the initial euphoria “only added to the miseries of the small and marginal farmers” constituting the majority). The TEC had shown that the claim of rising milk production by consuming Bt cotton feed was misleading as well.

For the Centre to then claim “transparency” and a “strengthened” regulatory regime” makes no sense.

Finally, whose technology is DMH-11?

To know this, one would have to check the GEAC minutes of November 7, 2002.

It says, M/s Proagro Seed Company, Gurgaon, had approached it in 2002 to seek commercial release of its transgenic hybrid mustard and mustard seed carrying barnase, barstar and bar genes – same ones that DMH-11 carries but named MT95003 and MT 95005 then. But the GEAC deferred a decision because of incomplete studies and tests and unresolved concerns about health and environmental issues involved, it decided to “defer” a decision.”

It resurfaced in 2017 as DMH-11, through Prof Pental of CGMCP.

The next big questions that beg answers are: Who owns Proagro Seed Company now? More importantly, who owns the patent for the barnase-barstar-bar system? What is the connection between Proagro and CGMCP? Who are the leading producers of the herbicide “herbicide phosphinothricin – commercial name Basta” the DMH-11 is tolerant of?

 The answer would reveal the secret behind the hurry and lack of transparency in clearing DMH-11 (the decision on Bt brinjal followed several rounds of national dialogue in various parts of the country).

It will also reveal if GM mustard will actually add to the foreign exchange burden by way of royalty outgo for using the technology and buying the herbicide. 

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