Busting myth of GM mustard

| | in Oped
Busting myth of GM mustard

To look at seed-based solutions for problems in our food and farming systems is faulty. It’s time that public funds are spent on lasting solutions for India's edible oil crisis, and not on hazardous distractions

India spends a whopping Rs 66,000 crore on the import of edible oil, annually. Meeting the requirement of oil from within the country perhaps requires both right policy interventions and ecological solutions. And genetically modified mustard, proponents of which are going ballistic over as a ‘solution’ to fix the import bill issue, has nothing to do with it.

Before anything else, it would be worth looking at the edible oil ledger book. Of the 14.5 million tonne of oil imported into the country as of previous year, 60 per cent is palmolein. Some estimates suggest that numbers could be as high as 70 per cent. Palmolein or cheap dirty palm oil comes from deforestation across the pristine forests in Indonesia with palm monocultures. The remaining 40 per cent comprises soybean, sunflower and rapeseed oil. Rapeseed comprises only a minuscule percentage of the total, showing that India is self-reliant in mustard oil. That’s the import part of the picture.

Simulatneously, demand for edible oils has been rising exponentially. India’s vegetable oil imports crossed 14.5 million tonne last year. It is important to recall that the oilseeds mission undertaken in the late 1980s and early 90s resulted in bringing down oil dependence from over 50 per cent to less than three per cent in a decade, creating a ‘yellow revolution’.

The issue, therefore, gets treated mainly as something that needs to be addressed by supply side improvements. It is in this context that Genetically Modified (GM) mustard developers’ managed to get around hundreds of crores of taxpayers’ fund to spend on research, development and testing of transgenic mustard. Advocates of this crop claim that GM mustard’s approval for commercial cultivation will improve mustard yield and bring down the country’s edible oil import bill.

In recent past, we have made elaborate presentations to the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee — an apex body constituted in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change — pointing that this particular transgenic mustard does not produce more than well-performing mustard varieties and hybrids released for Indian market recently. In fact, we showed how it was never tested in the first instance against latest releases to prove its claims of higher yields. We also showed that releasing several public and private sector hybrids did not make any dent in India’s production or yields related to rapeseed mustard. It is to be noted that mustard oil consumption is only 14 per cent of India’s edible oil consumption for various reasons, including strong consumer preferences. Importantly, we produced evidence to show that this is a herbicide tolerant GM crop which was never assessed as a herbicide tolerant crop, given the garb of hybrid-enabling transgenic technology.

Mustard experts point out that at least two million hectares of paddy land in India, which remains fallow after monsoon season of paddy cultivation, relay cropping of mustard can be taken up which will use residual moisture and could yield an additional 3.5 to four million tonnes of rapeseed-mustard. There is proof of concept in place in non-conventional mustard-growing areas.

There is clear evidence that large scale adoption of agro-ecological methods like System of Crop Intensification will not only increase productivity but also reduce use of water resources and reduce cost of cultivation for farmers. There is now convincing evidence on a large scale from the ground in different States, including official records from the Madhya Pradesh Government.

It is seen that groundnut oil production swings up and down on a wide basis with just 20-25 per cent of the crop under irrigation, though yield growth has been significant. Soybean oil production, which nearly doubled between 2003-04 and 2013-14, has been able to contribute what it did with just less than one per cent of the crop under irrigation cover (in contrast, rapeseed-mustard crops have 70-75 per cent irrigation cover).

On the ground, there is evidence to show that protective/emergency irrigation that too through participatory irrigation management approaches holds great promise for groundnut and other farmers, while System of Mustard Intensification is throwing up results from large scale experiences in States like Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, which are more impressive in productivity increases than ostensible increases from small trials done for DMH11 GM mustard hybrid in a few plots and seasons.

Institutional options: It is seen that with better extension systems, that too with downward accountability with the last mile extension gaps plugged as is happening with many agro-ecology centred programmes, productivity can be improved. Here, practising farmers become Community level Resource Persons. In fact, it is surprising that agriculture departments have not put into place this cadre of frontline last-mile workers, whereas in education, health and women and child development, this is a mechanism that is showing great results. Further, as mentioned earlier, community level planning processes and institutional frameworks have enabled better utilisation of scarce resources like groundwater for emergency irrigation; for groundnut cultivation in States like Andhra Pradesh. These need to be replicated on a large scale.

Policy options: It must be remembered that with low levels of import duties fixed, cheap oil, especially palmolein, is flooding the market. This in turn does not enthuse farmers to plant more oilseeds. Remunerative prices or procurement are not assured for them, either in the import-export policies or domestic pricing and procurement mechanisms. In this context, increased production does not necessarily translate to increased net returns for farmers.

Meanwhile, it is also seen that India’s cotton area went up by nearly four million hectares and by two million hectares during the past 15 years or so — proper land use and crop planning that prioritises oilseeds and prevents land use diversion would have ensured extra five million tonnes of oil through domestic production in this additional area that went into cotton and maize cultivation, egged on by programme and policy support. The importance of increasing area under mustard cultivation cannot be overstressed.

To make oilseed cultivation remunerative for farmers, it is important that market is not flooded by cheap oils from elsewhere. It must also be ensured that remunerative markets are provided to oilseed producers. This brings us to a very important question around our transgenic regulatory regime: Why is it that the impact assessment regime does not begin by asking if there is a need for the transgenic option in the first instance, and whether there are other viable and feasible alternatives?

It was in 2004 that the Indian Government adopted the recommendations of the Task Force on Application of Agricultural Biotechnology headed by MS Swaminathan. One of the foremost questions dealt with by this task force was around when and where should transgenics be deployed. The task force concluded that it should be the last resort where other options for a given problem are neither available nor feasible. However, in the context of GM mustard, the narrative that is being woven is that without GM mustard hybrid, India’s oilseed production problems cannot be solved. To look at seed-based solutions for various complex problems in our food and farming systems is faulty and misleading. It is time that public funds are spent on lasting solutions for India’s edible oil crisis, not on hazardous distractions that are irreversible in nature.

(The author is a senior campaigner of Food for Life campaign for sustainable agriculture by Greenpeace India)

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