India’s genetically engineered mustard debate: Questions asked and not asked

Opponents are questioning the crop’s productivity and socio-economic benefits, long-term ecological impacts and food safety potential. But the most pressing question is of democratic decision-making.

Mustard fields
Image: Rajesh Pamnani

When India’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee said on 18 October 2022 that it would allow the distribution and sale of a particular mustard hybrid to farmers for cultivation in their fields, it once again set off a controversy about genetically modified (GM) food crops in India.  

India’s  controversy over GM food crops is decades old, but had been somewhat latent ever since the last such food crop attempted to be brought to market  in India, Bt brinjal (Bacillus thuringiensis brinjal, as eggplant is also known), was put under a moratorium in 2010.

The matter was left to the court of law.

The latest decision to approve the “environmental release” of the indigenously developed transgenic mustard hybrid DMH-11 has unearthed the latent issues, debates and concerns around GM foodcrops in India,  exposing the incapability of India’s institutions to address the concerns about GM crops. Clearly, many lessons that could have been learned have been disregarded. Here’s a brief overview of the controversy, and what it means for India’s tryst with biotechnology.

Most of the public debate around GM mustard is centred around three issues: productivity and socio-economic benefits, long-term ecological impacts, and food safety.

Productivity and socio-economic benefits

The proponents of DMH-11 claim that GM hybrids could increase yields by 25-30%, thereby increasing farmers’ incomes and decreasing India’s import bill for vegetable oils.

However, some scientists and civil society groups say these claims are not based on evidence, and even that the yield and testing data are unscientific and manipulated. They claim non-GM hybrids already available in the market are already giving higher yields.

Long-term ecological impacts

Regarding the long-term ecological impacts, the discussion centres around the herbicide tolerant character of GM mustard.

Ecological scientists warn that in the long term, the herbicide tolerant property of GM mustard might cause more harm than its anticipated short-term goals. Some problems with herbicide-tolerant plants are well documented, such as the spread of herbicide-resistant weeds across large tracts of agricultural land, which can spell disaster for the normal crop.

This increases reliance and farmers’ spending on herbicides for weed control. Insecticide tolerance in Bt cotton, introduced in India 20 years ago, has been documented to have forced farmers to spend much more on insecticides than they did before as non-targeted pests have proliferated.

At a time when agriculture is going through unprecedented challenges and transformations owing to climate change, efforts should be made to decrease farmers’ risk rather than increasing it.

Food safety

The questions of consumer safety in the GM mustard debate so far are mostly relegated to the issue of labelling of food items. In a shocking response to the Supreme Court’s questions to the central government in relation to GM mustard, the government said that Indians are already consuming GM oil. This is despite a ban on GM foods in India and a legal system of mandatory labelling since 2013.

Since the vast majority of food items in India are sold without packaging in informal markets, it raises serious doubts about the capacity of the regulatory system to regulate GM crops in India and ensure consumer safety.

The questions not being asked

Amid heated debates, several questions remain unattended. These questions are central to the science-society relationship. India is the only country in the world that enshrines a constitutional duty for every citizen to have a scientific temper.

In a democratic society, it is important that matters of controversy such as those around GM mustard be solved via an inclusive public dialogue and process of deliberation. The recent Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2020 of India too talks about building platforms for public engagement.

Yet, so far there are no discussions or attempts to foster a responsible public deliberation on the social, ethical and legal implications of GM mustard. For the maintenance of public trust in institutions of science, it is imperative that the concerns of farmers and consumers, who stand to be the most impacted by GM technology, be taken into account.

A precedence of such a progressive initiative was set up by the Bt brinjal consultation in 2010. The moratorium on Bt brinjal did not mean that saying no to one particular technology made the public anti-science or anti-technology. Rather, it showed that in a civilized, democratic society of which science is a part, ‘no’ is an acceptable answer and the public’s wishes need to be respected.

Pandey is a Maria Zambrano fellow at the Post-Growth Innovation lab, University of Vigo, Spain. She is an interdisciplinary researcher working at the interface of science policy, development studies, and innovation studies. She has been working on contemporary agricultural challenges that include GM crops, environmental vulnerabilities, and rice stubble burning in north India, for the past eight years.

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