Interview| GM fundamentalists can’t even give one valid argument, says SJM’s Ashwani Mahajan

Interview| GM fundamentalists can’t even give one valid argument, says SJM’s Ashwani Mahajan

‘We don’t need GM mustard to improve yields, we just have to rely on varieties that are already growing in India,’ says Mahajan

The cold winter breeze returns to Delhi, making it harder for yellow sun rays to penetrate the smog and warm young mustard saplings. Meanwhile the Supreme Court for the past two days had been hearing the PIL against genetically modified (GM) mustard aka DMH-11 and asked a pertinent question – “If GM mustard is not approved, will our country be destroyed?”.

After all, the fate of Indian mustard hangs by a thread, one wrong step and India’s risks destroying thousands of years of evolution, nutrition and our rich traditions associated with mustard.

To seek the answer, I travelled to RK Puram where Ashwani Mahajan, national co-convenor of Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) awaited me. Over the years, SJM an RSS-affiliated organisation has vehemently opposed the introduction of GM mustard and successfully stood their ground against the pro-GM lobby in India. The question now was will India’s mustard survive against corporations and seed patents?

It was about 1:32 pm, when I entered Mahajan’s office, he was flipping through the Oragniser (RSS magazine) and wearing a greyish coat and white shirt. We exchanged greetings and he quickly showed me the magazine. GM mustard was on the cover. So I asked him what is the urgency on GM mustard.

“The Supreme Court has asked the right question, and except for the pro GM lobby who are acting as fundamentalists, there is no urgency. GM fundamentalists including some “agri-economists” and so called “agri-scientists” are giving the government fraudulent information on DHM-11 yields. These people are not relying on science, but rather make believe propaganda, especially when it comes to the yields,” Ashwani said.

This was a serious charge and I wanted to probe further. “ If we look at the yields of DMH-11 it’s about 2200 kg/Ha and today there are research varieties of mustard that are giving 4 tons/ha that are growing in the country. We don’t need GM mustard to improve yields, we just have to rely on varieties that are already growing in India,” he said.

Grey areas in India’s tryst with GMOs

“The GM fundamentalists can’t even give one valid argument in support of GM mustard, and when questioned start to narrate the “success” story of Bt cotton. But when asked they can never explain why the maximum number of farmers’ suicides are among Bt cotton farmers,” he added.

Now, Mahajan definitely had a point, there were many grey areas in India’s tryst with GMOs. As per the government, over 95% cotton is Bt cotton in India, and since its introduction India has experienced a significant drop post 2013 in average cotton production, meanwhile other fields crops like paddy, wheat, etc have doubled in productivity.

“In 14 years counting from 2007 to 2022, India has seen a 21% drop in production, meanwhile non-GMO cotton growing countries like Bangladesh , Ethiopia, etc are increasing yields each year. Agri-economists conveniently omit production figures post 2013, and make their case. This is not science, but the fundamentalism of the GM lobby,” Ashwani told us.

The picture was getting clearer, and so I asked, why should India not embrace GM Mustard? Is Ashwani’s opposition ideologically driven?

Mahajan smiled and replied, “The pro-GM lobby is ideologically driven, and they are blind to the data on Bt cotton and still repeatedly call it a success, when it actually has been a big failure for our farmers, native biodiversity and environment. 8000 crore has been illegally extracted by Bayer/Monsanto as trait fee for a failed technology. More than the politicians, people in the system ( agri-scientists, bureaucrats, etc) are responsible for mis-guiding the government.”

“Take for example the yield parameters of DMH-11 (GM mustard). Instead of comparing DMH-11 yields with the best mustard cultivar available, they are comparing the yields with a hybrid they have used to make the DMH-11. This is not sound science or agronomy. We have mustard varieties growing in the public Mustard research centres that can outperform the GM mustard. So why be on this path of destruction,” Ashwani explained.

The swadeshi claim

But he was not done. I asked him about the swadeshi claim, did he think the DMH-11 as a swadeshi GMO? “ The second lie being told is that this is swadeshi GMO, but if we look at the two traits (bar-barnase-barstar system) used to develop the DMH-11, it clearly points to Bayer. These two traits are patented products of Bayer and it is about time the developers of DMH-11 tell us what is the relationship between them and Bayer. Bayer tried to introduce a GM mustard in early 2000s, but it was rejected. Then out of the blue, the swadeshi GM mustard was introduced with the same two traits (Bayer owned). This mustard is neither swadeshi nor is it a mustard. It is a GM canola disguised as GM mustard. Bayer already has a monopoly on cotton and now using this DMH-11, foreign corporations want to take control of our mustard too,” Mahajan said.

Overlap of health and herbicide

The third major issue in the debate is the overlap of health and herbicide, the developers claimed that this GM mustard was not intended to be herbicide tolerant crop, what did Mahajan think of this statement?

“They hide the fact that it’s a herbicide tolerant crop, and once we exposed it, they confessed. With the DMH-11 the govt agencies are trying to legitimatise herbicide use and increase the incomes of pesticide makers. We have, with over 2 lakhs signatures helped get the carcinogenic Glyphosate restricted in India, now the DMH-11 is tolerant to glufosinate herbicide which is much more toxic than glyphosate, and once DHM-11 will be released no one can stop glufosinate from being sprayed on our fields and entering our food and water systems. Already there are thousands of cancer victims appealing in US courts against Round-Up (glyphosate), we don’t want another cancer epidemic in India, because of this toxic chemical,” Ashwani said.

Now agriculture is not separate from trade, and as many experts have pointed out, with the introduction of GM mustard or DMH-11, India could lose its non-GM tag and risks forfeiting billions of dollars in agri-exports. How did SJM see impacts on trade?

“Today India is able to export our farmers’ produce freely because of the non-GM tag. Except for a few countries, most of the world doesn’t not accept GM food, and if we allow GM mustard, we can lose billions in agri-exports. In 2007, GM rice trials were on in India, and about the same time UAE rejected an Indian rice consignment saying it tested positive for GM. After an investigation it was found that the GM trial fields were nearby and the traits perhaps escaped from the field trials,” said Mahajan.

“Now imagine if this can happen during controlled trials, what will happen once we commercialise GM crops. We risk everything. Organic exporters and farmers have more to lose here. Now look at what the US is doing at the WTO, they are pressuring us to remove the non-gm tag and allow for GM foods to enter Indian markets. While the US is pressuring us, India is debating GM mustard. If GM mustard is allowed it will open the floodgates for agri dumping of GMOs on our markets. The environment ministry cannot fully understand impacts on farmers, public health and markets, hence commerce ministry, health and agriculture ministry should work in tandem to understand GM mustard. Without this assessment, India risks losing our biological heritage for the profits of foreign companies,” Mahajan added.

As the clock struck 3 pm, I had to leave, but before leaving, I asked him – will the GM mustard be approved? Ashwani smiled and said, “we are making the best efforts to safeguard farmers, consumers and our civilisation, and we won’t give up so easily.

The author is an independent agri-policy analyst and former director – Policy and Outreach, National Seed Association of India. He tweets at @Indrassingh.

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