India Close To Approving First GM Food Crop

Approval of GM Mustard cleared a major hurdle this month after India's Ministry of Environment said that the mustard variety poses no risks to human health.

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Scientists working for India’s Ministry of Environment have completed the risk assessment report for genetically-modified mustard. Their study said that the variety poses no risk to human and animal safety. If approved, the GM Mustard would become India’s first food crop to be approved for commercial production. Proponents argue that growing GM mustard could help reduce the country’s cooking oil imports as mustard oil is the third-most used oil in India, after palm and soy. The scientists’ report will be available for public comment for 30 days. Comments will be reviewed by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee before a final decision is reached.

The topic of GM approval is politically sensitive and controversial in India as numerous well-known activists, such as Vandana Shiva, and several farmer groups oppose these crops due to their adverse impacts on human and animal health. However, the Times of India implied that the mustard’s approval was likely, regardless of public opinion. That hasn’t discouraged Indian farmers and environmental activists from vocally opposing the new mustard. The Coalition for a GM-free India has already called the Ministry of Environment’s risk assessment study fraudulent.

The study claimed to show that the GM mustard would increase mustard yield by 25%, but the coalition pointed out that the GM mustard was compared to wild mustard varieties, not the more commonly-used, domesticated varieties. Wild mustard is significantly less productive than the non-GM, domesticated mustard varieties not included in the study. Other farmer’s groups are claiming that the Ministry of Environment is manipulating science to support corporate profits at the expense of the Indian people. Yudhvir Singh of the Indian Coordination Committee of Farmer’s Movements said: “The government and its regulators have built an environment which supports the interests of seed and chemical manufacturers, at the expense of farmers and other citizens, despite numerous risks and evidence of fraudulent science.”

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The family of Dilip Ikaram Thackery, an Indian farmer who ended his own life, said he worried about not being able to pay back his loan after adopting GMOs. Credit – Al Jazeera

Though India currently has no GM food crops, other GM crops, like cotton, have overtaken their share of the market since they were introduced in 2002. India is the world’s second-biggest cotton grower, representing 12% of India’s total exports. More than 90% of India’s annual crop is genetically modified. However, instead of making farmers wealthy due to increased production and better harvests, many Indian farmers have become trapped in vicious debt cycles by adopting GM seeds and herbicides.

The GM crops have left farmer yields unchanged. Yet, farmers must continually buy expensive chemicals and must also confront the challenges presented by “super weeds” that become resistant to herbicides over time. Feeling unable to face these challenges and trapped by debt, many farmers have been taking their own lives. In 2009, the number of GM-debt related suicides were so large, that an Indian farmer was estimated to commit suicide every 30 minutes. If mustard, which is “central to India’s food culture,” ends up adding to the GM-fueled misery already felt by Indian farmers, that number may increase even more in the coming years.

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