Let the Dhara flow: GM mustard is pro-farmer and pro-science

Why India should approve its first genetically modified food crop
May 17, 2017
by Avinash Kishore

After years of wait and regulatory scrutiny, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), India’s regulator for transgenic products, has finally recommended the genetically modified mustard seeds named Dhara Mustard Hybrid 11 (DMH-11) for commercial release. The seeds contain genes from a bacterium that facilitate hybridization, with the aim of creating more high-yield mustard hybrids. In 2010, GEAC had approved Bt Brinjal, but the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF) did not permit its commercialization. We hope that this time, the government will respect scientists’ recommendation and allow farmers to grow DMH-11 in their fields.

Once again, anti-GMO activists are vociferously opposing GEAC’s decision. They claim that GM (genetically modified) seeds are not good for human health. Anti-GMO advocates have been stoking public fears about the safety of GM foods ever since the first GM crops reached the market in the United States in 1990s. Even after 25 years, there is no evidence that GMOs are harmful for human health. India imports thousands of tons of GM edible oil (and other GM food items) every year, but we do not know of a single verified case of illness or death attributed to genetic alterations. There is strong scientific consensus that GM crops are safe to eat and no different from their conventional alternatives in their health effects. Denying this evidence is as unscientific and anti-intellectual as denying climate change.

Opponents also claim that transgenic seeds lead to increased use of chemicals without offering any yield gains. This is also an unsubstantiated claim based on selective reading of evidence. Pest-resistant GM seeds (whose plants produce an insecticidal protein from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt) do lead to reduced use of pesticides while herbicide resistant (Ht) seeds may result in increased use of herbicides. Overall, GM seeds lead to the reduced application of active chemical ingredients to crops. GM crops are safe for the environment.

The third argument against GMOs is distributional: GM technology is anti-farmer and pro-multinational corporation. According to this claim, farmers have nothing to gain from GM technology. They lose control over genetic material, only to pay hefty premiums on GM seeds that require higher expense on herbicides, but do not offer better yields or better protection from pathogens. However, it is difficult to believe that farmers in India and elsewhere would be so hapless. The facts point to a very different reality. In India and in many other parts of the world, millions of small and large farmers have readily and voluntarily adopted genetically modified Ht and Bt seeds of cotton, soybean and corn, even when GM seeds are expensive and they have other choices. This revealed preference of millions of farmers across the world makes it hard to believe that GM technology is anti-farmer.

The fourth and a related argument against the use of GM technology in agriculture is that it can give too much power to large companies like Bayer and Syngenta, which own many of the patents. However, these concerns do not apply to DMH-11 or Bt Brinjal as they have been developed by government research institutions in India. Furthermore, even if this were a valid concern, giving up on this technology entirely is unwise. We can deal with each of these potential problems directly.

There is overwhelming scientific evidence for net benefit and minimal risks of GMOs, but the government of India continues to ignore mainstream science in following an extreme version of the precautionary principle advocated by critics of transgenic crops. This extreme precaution has raised the regulatory costs to a level that only large firms can pursue this technology. Critics of GM technology demonize large firms, but ironically, they have helped to create a regulatory environment where only the “demons” can survive.

GMOs can be used to increase crop yields, benefit the environment and make crops more nutritious. Indian farmers are eager to use GM technology and our scientists are ready to deploy it to more crops. It would be both pro-science and pro-farmer if the government and honorable courts allow the technology to take root.

Avinash Kishore is a Research Fellow in IFPRI's South Asia Office in New Delhi. The opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not represent those of the institution. This piece was originally published in The Business Standard.