Last month, anti- genetically modified organism (GMO) activists engaged in a war in the streets of India’s capital. The agitation is about the genetically modified (GM) variant of mustard—DMH11 (Dhara Mustard Hybrid 11).
Proponents argue that it will increase crop yields by 25–30 percent compared to the varieties grown in the country now, a move that could help the country increase its edible oil production.
The opponents, though, put forward various arguments, a majority of which are about the yield percentage and the impact of GM crops on the health of the ecosystem, including on humans.
The DMH-11 variant was developed by The Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP), at Delhi University. It is directly regulated by The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), which comes under the Indian Government’s Environment Ministry. So it is an Indian government project aimed at genetically modifying mustard to increase yield, thereby directly addressing food security. The CGMCP was scheduled to distribute the seeds for free, after the approval for commercial cultivation from the government. It is at this juncture that the anti-GMO advocates have caused the disruption.
The most commonly debated issues are: productivity, economic contribution, and safety.
GM crops and Productivity: The Numbers
Developing countries constitute 54 percent of the total global GM crop area. Over the period of 18 years between 1996 and 2013, farm incomes have increased by a cumulative $133.5 million due to the use of GM crops. The direct global farm income benefit due to GM crops was $18.8 billion in 2012 and $20.5 billion in 2013.
Apart from improving the economic condition of farmers, the biotech crops have also reduced the use of pesticides. The amount of reduction in pesticide usage has been 550 million kg or 8.6 percent. Moreover, the environmental footprint of biotech crops was reduced by 19 percent.
Let us for example consider Bt cotton—the only GM crop allowed for commercial cultivation in India. The farm income benefit from that crop was $16.2 million between 1996 and 2013).
When a developed nation like the U.S. can benefit $58.4 billion from biotech crop-based farm income (1996 to 2013), why should poor countries like India not adopt similar measures?
Economic Contribution: India’s Import of Oil from GM Crops
India imports 14 million tons (mt) of edible oil, 24% of which comes predominantly from GM rapeseed oil and soybean oil. Surprisingly, the anti-GMO advocates have not protested against GMO oil imports. Rather they chose to protest against the genetic development and implementation of mustard that contributes to 25 percent of India’s edible oil production.
Even a meagre conservative estimate of 10 percent increase in Mustard production (actual projection of 20-30% increase in yield) will help in reducing the import of GMO oil.
Safety of GM Mustard DMH-11
Anti-GMO activists have claimed that the GM variant is unsafe. But DMH-11 went through Biosafety Research Level-1 (BRL-1) tests between 2011 and 2013, in Rajasthan, under the coordination of the National Research Centre for Rapeseed-Mustard at Bharatpur, and BRL-2 tests at the Indian Agriculture Research Institute in Delhi and the Punjab Agricultural University in 2014-15.
It was deemed safe.
Yet the Anti-GMO campaigners had the single-minded objective of banning the seed. It is quite amusing, given that the GM variant has not been released for commercial farming, yet they have found ‘unsubstantiated’ reasons to call for a ban. After the recent protests, the government of India ordered eight additional tests which will be included in the seed’s biosafety dossier.
Thus the GM variant of mustard satisfies the important standards regarding its use—productivity, economic contribution, and environmental safety. Far too many voices have been raised against GMO mustard without due consideration of the research behind its development and the role it will play in edible oil production.
The Indian government is neither a proponent nor a villain of GMOs. But it needs to be pro-active about food security. The government needs to stand firm in its commitment to food security, and the development of scientific technology that will benefit millions. This should be achieved without risking the quality of the environment and the livelihood of many Indians.
My opinion is echoed by the Environment Minister of India, Prakash Javadekar, “We cannot let our people starve. But if there are other good alternatives available … our Prime Minister has repeatedly talked about organic farming, and using biotechnology in agriculture. But at the same time, scientific methods (GM) are also important.”