Calcutta, July 17: First it was cotton; now it is mustard.
Biotechnology companies from around the world are slowly but surely taking their first, furtive steps at “monopolising and colonising” traditional farming techniques in developing countries like India.
Blame it all on a much-reviled scientific technique called genetic modification of seeds.
The latest to jump on to the GM bandwagon in India is ProAgro, a subsidiary of Aventis of France, which has received approvals to start field trials on mustard (scientific name: Brassica Juncia).
This winter, the company will plant genetically modified mustard seeds at Morena in Gwalior and in Punjab.
Once the field trials are over, the company will have to present the results and other related data to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, which has representatives from the Union ministries of commerce, environment, agriculture and health.
Once the committee gives its approval, the company will be able to patent its seed and start commercial production.
The mustard trials are certain to reignite the raucous debate over GM seeds that began six years ago when Monsanto of the US began its field trials on its insect-protected hybrid cotton seeds.
The GM seeds have stirred controversy because farmers and environmentalists see in it a sinister design to make farming beholden to the biotech companies.
GM seeds can be used only once. This will force farmers to return to the company every year to buy the seeds. Once the company persuades a large section of the farming community to use the GM seeds because of its better resistance to pests and higher crop yields, they will be able to raise prices at will.
In March 2002, Monsanto received the committee’s approval to commercially exploit its GM cotton seed, which, it claims, is resistant to the dreaded bollworm pest. The GM cotton seeds were allowed to be sown by farmers in the crop season last year.
Reports on the success of Monsanto’s GM seeds will be available only later this year.
Monsanto, which was forced to call off its field trials on GM cotton seeds in Australia because of mass protests by farmer groups, claims the seed relies on a toxic bacteria gene to protect cotton crop from insects. In theory, the seeds eliminate the need for pesticides.
ProAgro claims its GM mustard seeds are resistant to glufosinate, a broad spectrum herbicide, and its per acre yield is 20 per cent more than the regular mustard varieties.
Environmentalists are worried by the prospect of ProAgro field trials because they reckon that the heavy use of glufosinate in the fields where GM mustard is cultivated will kill plants not only in the adjacent areas but also in distant fields as cross pollination of mustard is very high.
The economic impact will be far worse as the farmers will have to buy the seeds and the herbicides only from ProAgro once it obtains the patent.
Experts say that even the corporates that sell packaged mustard oil will have to pay royalties to ProAgro.
Greenpeace, an international environment group, has already decided to launch a countrywide campaign against the commercial production of GM mustard.
Greenpeace campaigner Divya Raghunandan said that rapeseed and mustard are two of the most important oil crops in India, cultivated on 6.68 million hectares, mainly in the northern plains.
“It is one of the major sources of edible oil for human consumption and oilseed cakes for animal feed. The GM mustard poses a potential risk to the environment as well as people’s health,” she said.
Greenpeace says the use of herbicide-tolerant GM mustard will increase the use of herbicides, thus increasing the amount of extremely toxic residues on food products.
“Further, glyphosate herbicides cause eye and skin irritation, cardiac problems, testicular cancer and a reduction in sperm count. The GM mustard will also cause genetic pollution by transferring their genes to related plants,” says a Greenpeace study.
Raghunandan says that once GM mustard is allowed to be cultivated on Indian soil, the country will face problems in its agricultural exports as countries belonging to the European Union and the US will not allow import of food crops that carry the threat of genetic disorders and toxicity.
Greenpeace has also alleged that the company is indirectly promoting the herbicide, glufosinate, which it had developed.
“It is a monopolistic method: first, the company made glufosinate; now they are developing crops that are genetically modified to resist the herbicide,” Greenpeace says.
Reports indicate that 10 companies worldwide control 30 per cent of the $23-billion commercial seed trade annually.
Four companies are in virtual control over the area of genetically modified crops -- Monsanto and DuPont of the US, Aventis of France and Syngenta of Switzerland.