There is almost a mass frenzy and a wave of misinformation on the question of genetically modified organisms (GMO) in India. Is it safe? Can it be eaten? Will bees die because of it? Does it really give higher yields? Is GMO good science? After years of propaganda fornicating with real science, and being courted by big agro money, the truth seems to be lost.

Only a few year ago, the case of Bt Brinjal, betrayed not only real science but misinformation and propaganda were able to sustain the debate for many months. The truth finally came out after a public hearing and public pressure. The conclusion: a moratorium was put on the Bt Brinjal indefinitely.

Are we experiencing the same wave of propaganda with genetical modified (GM) mustard? In these times of post-truth and alt-facts, it has become difficult to find out the answer to one simple question: why does India need GM mustard?

Aruna Rodrigues. Image courtesy: Indra Shekhar Singh

Aruna Rodrigues. Image courtesy: Indra Shekhar Singh

While the proponents of GM mustard are claiming that the herbicide tolerant GM mustard will increase yield by 25-30 percent, will reduce India’s edible oil import bills, and that GM mustard is safe, the evidence in the Supreme Court of India points to the opposite being the case.

To understand more about this, Firstpost writer Indra Shekhar Singh speaks with Aruna Rodrigues, the lead petitioner in the Supreme Court HT GM mustard case. She has exposed “agronomical fraud” with the help of public documents, and previous Chief Justice of India gave an interim injunction in the pendency of the case being heard. Edited excerpts from the interview:

Despite your case still being heard in the Supreme Court, we are hearing that the Government of India may approve commercial cultivation of GM mustard anytime now? What do you make of it?

It is curious indeed that the regulatory body is acting improperly while the case is being heard. But we have come to expect such behaviour. More pointedly, there is a verbal order of injunction based on the clear assurance by the Attorney General to the Chief Justice of India on 24 October 2016 that the Centre would not release GM mustard without the prior approval of the court. This was widely reported in the newspapers contemporaneously.

Does the herbicide tolerant (HT) GM mustard give higher yields? What has the government stated in the court?

The straight answer is no. GM mustard has — over a period of at least 10 years — been promoted as a hybrid product that will provide superior yield as compared to its non-GMO counterparts in agriculture, both varieties and hybrids. In the last few days, in the aftermath of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) approval on 12 May, virtually all media, especially the print focussed on this “supposed” superiority (higher yields) along with the other “supposed” issue that is the presumed biosafety of GM mustard variety called HT DMH 11.

The fact is that the government themselves in their “reply” (to our application) admitted on 88, pg 56, “No such claim has been made in any of the submitted documents that DMH 11 outperforms non-GMO hybrids. The comparison has only been made between hybrid DMH 11, National Check (NC) Varuna and the appropriate zonal checks (ZC). A maximum sustainable yield (MSY) of 2,670 kilogrammes per hectare has been recorded over three years of Biosafety Research Level (BRL) trials which were 28 percent and 37 percent more than the NC and ZC respectively”.

India’s best varieties and non-GMO hybrids outperform HT DMH 11 hands down. Therefore, this GM mustard fails the first test of a GMO risk assessment protocol, which is of need. There is no point to this mustard. As for the yield claims above, the whole story uncovered in public documents reveals that even these statistics are certainly unreliable. There has been active fudging of data and a wholesale deviation from scientific norms in the field testing, from which no meaningful conclusions can be drawn.

They have even stated again in the government’s reply (at 65, page 45): “The developers have nowhere claimed that the yield increase is due to the three transgenes.” Therefore, based on this evidence alone I may be permitted a degree of pungent comment in the form of “QED”.

Can this GM mustard help bring down India’s edible oil import bill and save our precious foreign reserve?

I have made several enquiries and must make a calculated guess as to why the media story is so divergent from the facts as admitted by the Union of India in the Supreme Court. There is an interesting pointer — the fact is that AG Mukul Rohatgi actually stated in the Supreme Court that HT DMH 11 would substantially reduce our import bill of edible oil. If there is no superior yield this logic is ludicrous. It gains further stupefaction when we also consider rapeseed oil, which is the nearest equivalent to mustard oil; and that import, in the form of mainly GM Canola from Canada, is less than 2 percent of our total oilseeds’ imports. On what strange logic will our import oil bill be reduced?

These comments are, apart from the biosafety of this herbicide tolerant mustard, which also makes HT DMH 11 and its HT variants pesticidal crops. The transgenes in it are toxic and glufosinate (the herbicide that will eventually be sprayed no matter what the regulators are putting out) is an acknowledged neurotoxin. It is also to note that the technical expert committee appointed by the Supreme Court has recommended not to allow HT crops in India.

In your opinion who is responsible for this push for this GM Mustard?
The fact is that the NITI Aayog, which has not done its homework at all, also believes without any science to back that belief that GMOs provide superior yield, even though no GMO at present has any trait for yield and the two technologies of both HT and BT, currently 99 percent of plantings worldwide, have proven to be unsustainable. In India, BT Cotton has failed on the central government’s own admission in the Delhi High Court in 2016. HT GM mustard also, decisively, has no yield superiority. The claim of superior yield is the basis of the NITI Aayog’s endorsement of GMOs in their national agriculture policy for India’s food security. Therefore, that this is also the advice that has been received by the prime minister or Prime Minister’s Office would be a natural conclusion. Where is the science? Where is the truth?