The GM mustard debate raises profound questions of environmental sustainability, justice, and substantive citizenship in a deeply unequal society.
The Supreme Court is the last institution standing between genetically modified (GM) food and Indian farmers and consumers. The Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change approved the University of Delhi’s GM mustard seeds for cultivation on 18 October 2022. Ordinarily, this would have allowed the university to release GM mustard seeds to farmers. However, environmentalists immediately filed an appeal against the approval before the Supreme Court, which has been hearing constitutional challenges to India’s regulatory regime for GM crops for nearly two decades. The Supreme Court temporarily halted the approval on 3 November 2022. If the Supreme Court eventually allows the approval, GM mustard will become India’s first GM food crop. The only other GM food crop, which came close to commercialisation in India, was insect-resistant (Bt) brinjal or eggplant. It was cleared by the technical regulators of the environment ministry in 2009, but has been under an indefinite moratorium since 2010, ordered by the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh.
Much like GM brinjal, GM mustard will be consumed in a variety of ways – as a spice, as greens (saag) and edible oil. The release of GM mustard will likely open the floodgates for GM food across cereals such as rice, wheat, corn, millets like sorghum, pulses like pigeon pea (tur dal), vegetables such as tomato, okra, brinjal, cauliflower, and fruits like papaya and watermelon – these are being developed by companies as well as state agencies. In brief, once GM mustard is approved, there will be no going back. The very future of farming in India and its food culture and heritage is hanging by a judicial thread.
GM crops are controversial across the world, but nowhere more so perhaps than in India. They are quite different from the varieties and hybrids bred historically by farming communities, and what is now much more common, public agricultural research institutions and private companies. GM crops are those whose DNA has been modified in the laboratory through the insertion, at a random location, of a small number of genes to exhibit certain traits. As of 2019, over 99 per cent of the GM crops grown in different parts of the world exhibit one or both of two traits – insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. Insect-resistant crops are also called Bt crops after the soil dwelling bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis with which they are modified. They confer resistance to certain insects by producing a pesticidal protein within plant cells. Herbicide-tolerant (HT) crops withstand herbicide applications. If farmers sow HT seeds, they can get rid of unwanted plants by blanket-sprays of herbicides, which kill all vegetation except the HT crop. Soybean, maize, cotton, and canola are the top four GM crops grown globally, covering over 99 per cent of the total area under GM crops in 2019.
This offers a clue to the controversy over GM crops. Advocates believe that GM crops – and the newer gene-edited crops – are necessary to feed a rapidly urbanising world marked by climate change and population growth. Critics point out that GM traits and crops have less to do with a concern for the hungry, and more to do with the priorities of multinational agrochemicals and seeds, commodity trade and processed food companies. The four crops mentioned above are not the main staple food items in many parts of the world, but GM soybean and corn serve as prime raw materials for the meat and processed food industry. Further, by their capacity to withstand herbicides and produce pesticides, GM crops go further along an already unsustainable model of agriculture, which is risky and costly for farmers, chemical-intensive, and polluting. This same model of farming has degraded soils, soaked up groundwater, and led to communities losing access to biodiversity and culturally appropriate food. Finally, unsustainable agriculture has contributed to our vulnerability to pandemics, including the latest COVID-19 pandemic.
There are also concerns, involving technical matters such as long-term toxicity for animals and humans, allergenicity, risks to ecology and biodiversity, and political matters such as worsening indebtedness of farmers, labelling rules for GM food, etc. Some of these are particular to GM crops, while others are broader and concern the way companies and states exert control over farming and food. Here it is important to remember that India has some of the largest number of smallholder farmers in the world, and so the trajectory of GM crops here is of global interest. Further, India is the sixth largest market for seeds in the world, making the GM debate here critical to the fortunes of global seed and agrochemical companies.
From the very beginning, the Indian government was involved in funding and regulating biotechnology as part of the agenda for agricultural and industrial development and promotion of science and technology. In 1986, India became the first country in the world to establish a federal Department of Biotechnology (DBT). It reported directly to the Prime Minister, and worked in parallel to the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). The DBT was responsible for funding, promoting and overseeing biotechnological research. The MoEF, working with the DBT, was responsible for regulation.
Given the centrality of the state in setting up biotechnology, the increasing politicisation of society, the rise of new political constituencies, and the socio-political and ecological impacts of the Green Revolution on farms and food emerging since the 1980s caught up soon with biotechnology. In the decades since, nowhere in the world have GM crops got as embroiled with democratic pressures as in India. To appreciate this, it is important to explore how the debate has deepened and expanded from Bt cotton to GM mustard via Bt brinjal. With each iteration the range of groups and the spectrum of concerns have expanded and become more complex.
GM crops in the shadow of the globalisation debate
Bt cotton came to India in the 1990s through Monsanto’s equity stake in the leading Indian seeds company, Mahyco. Monsanto introduced its Bt gene into Mahyco’s proprietary cotton hybrids. Monsanto-Mahyco’s proposal to introduce Bt cotton in India ran into controversy even before the government approved the GM crop. The key pivot in the controversy was the relationship between India’s farmers, particularly small and marginal landholders, and multinational agribusinesses like Monsanto. And the context was the liberalisation of the economy.
Along with deregulating the economy starting the mid-1980s, the Indian government scaled down farm lending, technical extension to farmers, and price supports to agriculture. By the mid-1990s, alarming reports began trickling in from rural journalists, notably P. Sainath, of agrarian distress and a gathering storm of suicides by farmers. This was particularly concentrated in areas of market-oriented agriculture such as Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra where Green Revolution technologies had been introduced. These were the areas where the risks of chemical-intensive commodity agriculture intensified as state support dwindled.
Environmentalists like Vandana Shiva as well as biotechnologists like Pushpa Bhargava were alarmed about foreign, multinational companies gaining a decisive influence over seeds in a low-income, agrarian country already suffering distress. Further, Indian agriculture is plagued by unequal patterns of landholding, caste and gendered divisions among farmers, and caste antagonisms between landowning farmers and agrarian labourers, often belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. This meant that the interests and concerns of most farmers and the larger, more heterogeneous constituency of labourers were very poorly reflected in national farm policymaking, even as their lives stood to be potentially upended by globalisation.
Also, there were worries about weaknesses in India’s environmental regulations. However, governmental deliberations and activists’ concerns were waylaid by some small domestic companies illegally releasing smuggled Bt cotton seeds, and farmers taking to the crop. A few influential groups of well-resourced farmers, such as the Shetkari Sanghatana (or farmers’ organisation) in the western state of Maharashtra, also supported the release of Bt cotton. It must be noted, however, that farmers sowing the illegal seeds were not necessarily voting with their feet for ‘GM cotton’ – many farmers still think of GM seeds as if ‘Bt’ were a brand name. Nonetheless, the illegal seeds were quite popular in the early 2000s. In response, the government allowed Monsanto-Mahyco to legally release Bt cotton in the market in 2002.
What ensued were conflicting reports – industry bodies and a section of academics claimed that Bt cotton was successful in saving pesticide costs and increasing cotton production. Environmentalists and some academic reports claimed Bt cotton had worsened agrarian distress and debt, and made farmers more vulnerable to suicide. This was because Bt cotton seeds were considerably more expensive than ordinary cotton hybrid seeds, to say nothing of cotton varieties. Further, the performance of the pesticidal trait varied at different points in the season and with different parts of the cotton plant – the expression of the toxin was sometimes the lowest in parts most susceptible to pest attacks. In addition, there were also many spurious and low-quality seeds circulating in the market, making it difficult to make straightforward connections between farmers’ experience and Bt cotton. In sum, by and large, farmers’ upfront costs went up, and often, the anticipated savings in pesticide sprays did not materialise. This made things very difficult for small and marginal farmers, particularly in water-scarce or dryland areas of the country like Vidarbha in eastern Maharashtra.
Reports of agrarian distress and suicides were coming mainly from these parts. Farmers’ political engagement with GM crops was, and remains to this day, uneven. It first arose in cotton-growing tracts of the country. Regions where commodity crops were less prevalent such as highland, mountainous areas in different parts of the country, or where the Green Revolution technologies were late to arrive, such as eastern and north-eastern India were not at the forefront of the GM debate.
In any case, even as the debate on Bt cotton’s performance was playing out in different parts of the country, Mahyco initiated an application to commercialise insect-resistant Bt brinjal. As this application moved through regulatory hoops, the concerns over GM food and the unresolved issues surrounding Bt cotton galvanised large-scale controversy and scrutiny of Bt brinjal.
GM crops and constitutional issues
Bt cotton seeds are crushed into and consumed as an edible oil, even though Bt cotton was only approved as a fiber crop and not a food crop. Nevertheless, Bt cotton was largely seen as a debate concerning only farmers. With Bt brinjal, however, the debate became about all Indians – as farmers and consumers. It acquired a constitutional dimension in more profound ways than Bt cotton. This was precipitated by public interest litigations filed in the Supreme Court by Gene Campaign, founded by Dr. Suman Sahai, and separately, by environmentalist Aruna Rodrigues.
Dr. Sahai and other activists had been asking the government to make biosafety data public, to no avail. Even after the enactment of the Right to Information Act in 2005, the government did not disclose the biosafety dossier for Bt cotton and Bt brinjal. The government was finally forced to do so in 2008, when petitioners won an order from the Supreme Court. Once biosafety data was made public, many people from different walks of life intervened in the controversy, dissatisfied with the ways tests were being conducted. Notably, division of judgment among scientists came to the fore, as molecular biologists, entomologists, plant breeders, ecologists, nutritionists, medical doctors, and even traditional healers stepped into the fray. Meanwhile, farmers groups began voicing concerns about costs and risks of cultivation and those over impacts on livestock before the state governments. Many of these concerns germinated in the experience with Bt cotton seeds. Around 2007-09, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra passed laws introducing ceiling prices on Bt cotton seeds, which were challenged before the judiciary by the seed industry. Ultimately, in December 2015, the Union government issued an order capping the price of Bt cotton seeds and also the maximum trait fee, effectively the royalty, that Monsanto-Mahyco can charge for the GM trait.
Curiously, at no point did the government ask Mahyco to make its pricing plans for Bt brinjal public – so the claim of socio-economic benefits to farmers from the crop was lacking the critical factor of upfront prices that farmers will have to pay for the GM seed. In any case, the Bt brinjal debate drew participation from many more actors and groups vis-à-vis that around Bt cotton, and it was this that forced the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh to himself get involved with the issue, once the regulatory committee of the ministry cleared Bt brinjal for release in 2009. In a novel exercise, Ramesh took the Bt brinjal issue to the public by organising hearings in seven cities, soliciting opinions from leading Indian and foreign scientists, and asking state governments for their views. States with substantial cultivation of brinjal such as West Bengal, Odisha and Bihar, along with the states of Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, and undivided Andhra Pradesh opposed Bt brinjal. Some states like Bihar and Rajasthan also started restricting field trials i.e., cultivation in open fields of GM crops for purposes of evaluation. Based on this exercise, Ramesh imposed an indefinite moratorium on Bt brinjal in February 2010. He cited the precautionary principle, opposition from states, and division in scientific opinions in his order.
In recent years, there have been reports of smuggled Bt brinjal seeds circulating in different parts of the country, and some members associated with the Shetkari Sanghatana, have launched a civil disobedience movement against the moratorium by deliberately sowing Bt brinjal seeds. In other words, there is an attempt to insert modes of protest from the freedom struggle into the dispute over GM food. Vegetable farmers by and large however have been indifferent to the demand for lifting the moratorium which remains in place.
The shadow debate on GM mustard
GM mustard is a herbicide tolerant (HT) crop that has been developed by scientists at the University of Delhi led by the renowned biotechnologist Dr. Deepak Pental. Its development is funded by the National Dairy Development Board and the Union government’s Department of Biotechnology. Mustard flowers are difficult to hybridise, and so GM mustard uses herbicide-tolerance and fertility manipulation to develop hybrid mustard seeds for enhanced yield. The developers, the Union government, and other advocates argue that the GM crop is important to reduce India’s dependence on imports for edible oil – India is dependent on imports, in the main palm and soy oil, for about 60 per cent of its annual consumption of vegetable oils. Thus, GM mustard has raised, once again, the question of whether to allow GM food in the country.
And yet, the intensity of the debate, building up roughly since 2016, is a pale shadow of the one over Bt brinjal. This is despite multiple developments since the moratorium on Bt brinjal of which the most important are the ones in Parliament and the Supreme Court. In the backdrop of the bid to release Bt brinjal, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture examined the issues concerning GM crops and food in 2012. As GM mustard inched closer to release, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests, scrutinised the issue again in 2017. Both committees issued unanimous reports that highlighted serious weaknesses with the regulatory regime for GM crops. The 2017 report made a specific reference to GM mustard, and called for a thorough, transparent, and scrupulous biosafety, environmental risk and socioeconomic impacts assessment.
Standing committees draw representation from both ruling and opposition parties. They independently examine evidence, and hear from wide-ranging constituencies including the government and the civil society. Their recommendations and criticisms embody the legislative and policy-oriented will of the people. The fact that two committees, working independently across an interval of five years, unanimously called for caution before releasing GM crops and identified grave deficiencies in the regulation of GM crops, is quite alarming.
What makes the situation dire is the corroboration provided by a Technical Expert Committee (TEC) in the public interest litigations by Gene Campaign and Aruna Rodrigues. The TEC consisted of six scientists from different fields of science, appointed by the Supreme Court. It examined biosafety dossiers of Bt cotton, Bt brinjal and other GM crops in detail and issued a majority report in 2013, signed by five members. The majority report diagnosed many gaps in biosafety assessment, and called for a comprehensive overhaul of regulation. Specifically, it found HT crops “totally unsuitable for the Indian context” and warned of serious risks to biodiversity, ecology, and sustainability of agriculture from them.
Such consensus coming from leading technical experts and elected representatives of the people is hard to dismiss or ignore. In a democratic political framework, this is as compelling a case as can institutionally be made to overhaul regulation before taking any decision on GM crops.
Since 2016, when GM mustard came close to release, and even more since October 2022, when the government green-lighted the crop, protests have broken out in different parts of the country against GM mustard. Honey cultivators and beekeepers have been protesting GM mustard, worried about the impacts on bees. Bees are key pollinators that sustain agriculture, and mustard flowers are very important for beekeepers. Further, many agricultural scientists including senior mustard breeders have examined yield data and argued that GM mustard is not particularly high-yielding. In fact, an analysis from within the University of Delhi itself shows that four non-GM mustard hybrids yield higher than the GM crop.
Instead of addressing these criticisms, the government seems to be scuttling debate. Nearly a year since approving GM mustard, the environment ministry has not made its full biosafety dossier public. This makes it hard to know what biosafety tests were conducted and with what degree of robustness. In December 2022, Himanshu Pathak, director general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, tried to clamp down on dissenting scientists. He warned:
“[Any] opinion or article published on the subject by anyone not authorised or former employees of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) different from the stated documentations and decisions made by the regulatory authorities . . . are not endorsed by the Council and are subjectable (sic) to any administrative procedures required in public interest.”
Many scientists, activists and public representatives condemned this as a virtual ‘gag order’. This is yet another iteration of the growing tendency of clamping down on dissent, instead of scrupulously addressing underlying concerns.
Perhaps the most bizarre argument in support of GM mustard is playing out in the Supreme Court. When the petitioners pointed out the risks of HT crops, and their unsuitability by the TEC’s reckoning in the Indian context, the government responded in January 2023 by claiming that GM mustard should not be considered an HT crop. The logic it offered was that the herbicide-tolerance trait in GM mustard was not a ‘commercial’ trait, but only meant for developing hybrid seeds. In other words, the government does not dispute the fact that GM mustard is an HT crop, but it argues that it should not be treated as such, because farmers do not have to spray herbicides on it. Any crop that can withstand herbicides is an HT crop. Biosafety assessment is premised on what a crop is and what farmers will likely do with it, rather than the intentions and declarations of crop developers. While the petitioners are raising constitutional concerns, the government seems to be trying to confuse the Apex Court with red herrings.
The debate on GM crops in India touches upon much wider dimensions of politics and economics, such as the role of the state in promoting farmers’ welfare and environment protection, the space for private companies in the sphere of farming and food, the interplay between science, law, and politics. Consequently, its intensity has waxed and waned with the pulsations of democratic ferment in India. Its current iteration is playing out, less so on the streets, but certainly on social media and in the courts. And newer constituencies are demanding a say in the matter of GM crops, and calling for a more complex policy articulation sensitive to the plurality of interests and concerns in an unequal, crisis-ridden society.
HT cotton, HT rice, GM variants of many millets, pulses, fruits, and vegetables are working their way through the regulatory pipeline. As mentioned earlier, if the Supreme Court allows GM mustard, it will open the doors simultaneously to GM food and HT crops in the country. The very future of India’s food cultures and heritage, crop biodiversity, and farming traditions that yet survive is at stake. And this is not something that can be taken lightly, as the COVID-19 pandemic painfully demonstrated. The pandemic had a great deal to do with unsustainable, monoculture models of farming commodity crops and livestock.
In 2022, anthropologist Glenn Stone and former director of the public sector Central Institute of Cotton Research, Keshav Kranthi published a long-term study of the impacts and performance of Bt cotton, analysing two decades of data. They found that Bt cotton offered fleeting benefits, and that its main impact was to drastically increase costs of cultivation and the risk burden for farmers. Contrary to claims about farmers’ profits, Bt cotton has basically enriched a few seed companies who have cornered a large share of the market for cotton seeds. The failure of the national agricultural research system to release a viable, low-price Bt cotton despite decades of research is particularly galling in this regard. In hindsight, activists who were ringing warning bells about Bt cotton were perhaps not so wrong after all.
The views and analysis contained in the publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. Heinrich Böll Stiftung will be excluded from any liability claims against copyright breaches and texts used in this publication. The author is solely responsible for the correctness, completeness and for the quality of information provided.