Conspiracy against mustard

, Reuters

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Updated: Jun 26, 2015, 06:30 AM IST

When winter comes, I crave for sarson ka saag. As far as I can remember, even when I got my first job, my mother would send me a container full of saag that would last me for a week or so. I could eat saag with every meal, or at least once a day, a habit that I have not given up since I was a child. But why I am sharing this insight into my culinary taste and preference is because I fear I may soon have to give up on one of my favourite foods. 

With the Ministry of Environment & Forests reportedly considering granting a commercial approval to genetically-modified (GM) mustard, I certainly wouldn’t like to take a risk anymore. Knowing the health risks associated with GM foods, I would like to keep away. I am sure millions of north Indians, who are known to have a taste for makki ki roti and sarson ka saag, too, would be greatly disappointed. After all, there is no desperate reason to genetically modify a food crop that has traditionally been a part of the daily cuisine. Moreover, there is no way to segregate the GM mustard from normal mustard to ensure that what I am eating is not genetically modified. 

Five years after the Ministry of Environment & Forests had, in 2010, imposed a moratorium on Bt brinjal, which if approved would have been the first food crop in India to be genetically modified, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the nodal agency that grants approvals, is getting ready to give a green signal to Delhi University’s GM Mustard variety DMH-11. The claim is that this GM Mustard gives 20-25 per cent higher yield, and also improves the quality of mustard oil. It is time to examine the veracity of these claims. 

Claims notwithstanding, it is also time to first understand how easily our food is being tampered in the name of increasing crop productivity. The fact of the matter is that there is no GM crop so far across the globe that increases productivity. Even in GM Mustard, the increase in yield that is being claimed, is simply because of the hybrid variety in which the three alien genes have been inserted. Which means if you grow one of the popular mustard hybrids already available in the market, you will hardly have any yield advantage. 

It is being repeatedly said that India imports edible oils worth Rs60,000-crore every year and, therefore,  with an increased productivity of GM Mustard, the import bill will be reduced. For those who do not know the real situation, this looks to be a worthwhile proposition. But what is not known is that the huge imports are not because of any shortage of technology or because farmers are unable to produce more. It is simply because successive governments have allowed import duties to be drastically cut from the applicable rate of 300 per cent to almost zero now. As a result, India has been inundated with cheaper imports. 

It was in 1985 that the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi decided to launch an Oilseeds Technology Mission to raise the productivity of oilseed crops, including mustard, so as to reduce the import bill. In 1985, India was importing approximately Rs15,000-crore of edible oils, which was roughly 50 per cent of our domestic requirement. This was the third biggest import bill — after petrol and fertilisers — that Rajiv Gandhi was keen to curb. The result was that 10 years after the launch of the Oilseeds Mission, in 1993-94, India became almost self-sufficient in edible oils. With only 3 per cent imports, 97 per cent of edible oils began to be produced within the country.

The cut in import tariffs was not as much from WTO directive but more because of autonomous liberalisation. As per WTO norms, India’s import tariffs for edible oils are bound at 300 per cent. But for reasons that do not make any economic sense, India’s import tariffs have been gradually brought down to almost zero. With cheaper imports coming in, farmers stopped cultivating oilseeds and also much of the processing infrastructure for oilseeds lies redundant. The best way to increase oilseeds production therefore is to raise the import tariffs and provide an enabling environment to farmers. They will do the rest. 

Mustard is one of the many oilseeds crops that are grown in India. Over the years, its productivity and production has been on an upswing. In 2010-11, a record mustard production of 81.8 lakh tonnes was harvested.  From 9.04 quintals per hectare in 1990-91, average mustard yield has increased to 12.62 quintals in 2013-14, with Gujarat recording 16.95 quintals per hectare. There is no shortage of mustard in the country. Mustard yields can still be increased further if farmers are paid a remunerative price and an adequate mandi infrastructure is created to procure the harvest every year. Since almost 70 per cent of the mustard crop is cultivated in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana, the problem farmers face is that of over-production and lack of buyers. In Rajasthan, particularly, the central agency Nafed has been pressed into service time and again to procure mustard when prices crash at times of an unmanageable glut. 

Mustard oil is one of the healthiest of the edible oils available. It contains one of the lowest levels of saturated fatty acids. But the problem mustard oil faces as far as quality is concerned is its large scale contamination with cheaper cottonseed and palm oils. To provide pungency, some popular brands, add a solution of red chillies.  Improving the quality of mustard oil, therefore, does not require genetic modification but a clean-up in the processing industry and checking unethical trade practices. It needs a crackdown on the oilseeds trade to ensure that quality oil is made available.  

Increasing production of oilseed crops like mustard, thereby cutting down on edible oil imports, does not require introduction of GM Mustard. Even the Shanta Kumar committee has in its report on ‘Restructuring FCI’ dwelt on this issue and recommended trade policies to be in tune with country’s food self-sufficiency. I therefore wonder why GEAC is so keen to push another risky food crop down our throats. Why should people be subjected to a risky food just so some scientists can claim credit for producing an unwanted, unhealthy and environmentally damaging GM crop? 

The author is a food policy expert