Thirteen years after the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) had ‘deferred' commercial approval for genetically-modified (GM) mustard; the genie is once again back. Costing Rs 70-crore of taxpayer's money, which could have helped set up at least 3,000 new schools, the new GM mustard awaiting approval for commercial cultivation this time comes dressed up in public sector attire.
The same claims, the same language (almost the same) and the same fears. Earlier it was Pro-Agro Seeds India, a subsidiary of multinational agro-chemical giant Bayer, which claimed its GM variety containing four foreign genes, would raise the productivity of mustard by 20-25 per cent, and improve oil quality. The new GM mustard that has been developed by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants, University of Delhi, and contains three alien genes - Bar, Barnase and Barstar -- also makes strikingly similar claims. At the same time, for reasons that can be explained, the promoters of the earlier Pro-Agro GM mustard as well as Delhi University's new GM mustard deny the expression of herbicide resistance, although both use a gene known for it.
Pro-GM lobbies distorting facts
The country is importing Rs 60,000-crore worth of edible oils every year and therefore there is an urgent need to increase the production of mustard, which in turn means producing more edible oils, goes the refrain. In several panel discussions and public debates on this subject in which I have participated, I have heard Dr Deepak Pental, a former Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University and the lead developer of the new GM mustard, repeatedly assert on the need to cut down on the foreign exchange outgo and also how much would be the resulting saving for a developing country like India. This is exactly what the promoters of the GM mustard developed by Pro-Agro used to claim some 13 years back. Edible oil imports at that time were also around 50 per cent of the domestic requirement, costing the state exchequer Rs 12,000-crore.
To any educated person, the argument on the need to reduce the huge import bill on edible oils sounds very appealing. But very cleverly, the GM lobby has used this argument to give an impression as if it is because of the shortfall in mustard production. In reality, it is not so.
Let me explain. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was piqued over India's rising imports. He was desperate to cut down on what the macro-economists call as the Current Account Deficit. Fuel, fertilizer and edible oils topped the import chart. The annual import bill for edible oils then hovered between Rs 1500 and Rs 3000-crores. Knowing that edible oil imports could be stopped since India had the ability to raise domestic oilseeds production and also undertake processing, he launched a Technology Mission in Oilseeds in 1985.