India, the world’s second-largest producer of rice, wheat, vegetables, and fruit, is a country that multinational corporations involved in genetically modified (GM) crops cannot ignore. GM crops can boost plant resistance to pests, help grow in difficult conditions like drought, and increase nutrient levels. However, multinational firms have failed to make a dent in leading farm food producers and consumers in India.
US multinational Monsanto, through its Indian subsidiary Mahyco, managed to push through Bt cotton, a genetically engineered non-food to kill the pink bollworm pest. India’s large vegetarian population, comprising 40% of its 1.4 billion people, makes it challenging for GM companies to enter food crops, making it difficult for them to compete.
GM crops are being promoted as a way to save on toxic pesticides, but most require herbicides with glyphosate and glufosinate, which are toxic. The World Health Organization identified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in 2015, adding to the debate over the safety of GM crops. Additional foreign species genes are layered in to protect plants from herbicides, making them more costly to produce.
The stealthy entry of Bt cotton into India, which caught the country’s regulators off-guard, did not inspire public confidence. The stealthy entry galvanized environmentalists and activists to approach the Supreme Court in 2004 to ensure tighter regulation of all GM crops. The court has not been sympathetic to pleas by government counsel that GM food crops are essential to feed India’s large population. At the last hearing, the Supreme Court indicated it would not be rushed into allowing the planting of GM mustard in the September sowing season.
The Indian Supreme Court is hearing affidavits filed by litigants against the government’s approval of the “environmental release” of genetically engineered mustard (GM mustard). The matter is currently under adjudication before the Supreme Court. India’s first genetically engineered food crop, GM mustard, was banned after Mahyco used B.thuringiensis genes to produce Bt eggplant. After a government moratorium, Mahyco negotiated with Bangladesh to accept Bt eggplant, and in 2018, Bayer acquired Monsanto, gaining control over Mahyco.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) acknowledges concerns over potential risks, including pest resistance and safety issues, but insists that the benefits outweigh these risks. More than 17 million farmers are planting GM crops in 29 countries, but India’s 120 million farmers face pro-vegetarian sentiments, fears of weedicides destroying other crops, and demands for tighter regulation. Litigants cite the case of the herbicide-tolerant (HT) variety of Bt cotton, compelling Indian cotton growers to add weedicides to their growing list of costly farm inputs.
India, a major edible oil importer, is expected to buy up to 14 million tonnes of edible oil during the September 2022 to October 2023 season. However, closer examination reveals that the ‘white’ mustard oil imported is actually canola, extracted from rapeseed, a genetically engineered mustard variety. In Canada, where canola is a leading crop, herbicides, especially glyphosate, save growers the cost of uprooting weeds. A study in January charges Canada’s regulators with “embracing industry narratives” and resorting to opaque decision-making and lack of transparency to promote commercial interests over public health and environmental protection.
Litigants are also levelling charges against India’s regulators for granting clearances for GM mustard and the glufosinate herbicide that goes with it. Switching to GM crops to save on pesticides has resulted in growers having to use herbicides, making it a toss-up between one type of toxic agrochemical and another. The Supreme Court’s technical expert committee has recommended a complete ban on herbicide-tolerant crops in India, predicting it could take years before GM crops enter the country’s food supply.