———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Kavitha Kuruganti <kavitakuruganti@gmail.com>
Date: Wed, Feb 10, 2016 at 6:57 AM
Subject: Harish Damodaran & Amitabh Sinha piece on GM mustard
To: harish damodaran IE <harishdamodaran@hotmail.com>, amitabh.sinha@expressindia.com
Cc: viveck.goenka@expressindia.com, prabhas.jha@expressindia.com, The Indian Express <editor@expressindia.com>, feedback@indianexpress.com

Dear Harish Damodaran and Amitabh Sinha,

You have written a piece recently (on February 8th 2016, titled GM Row Again, With Mustard Topping) on GM mustard which reveals once again your activist colors in the GMO debate, where you have made it your own campaign to promote GMOs without using good journalistic standards of presenting important relevant information nor presenting views of all sides correctly. Indian Express is also known in any case for such campaigns for reasons best known to itself.
I still choose to write to you, to point out flaws in your arguments, data and presentation on this important subject. The subject is indeed important since it pertains to livelihoods of millions, in addition to health of all citizens. I hope the chief functionaries in Indian Express will consider for once, forwarding an informed debate on this subject, rather than convenient framing of selective views with partial information.
Thank you.


On February 8th 2016, Indian Express published a piece called “GM row again, with mustard topping” penned by Harish Damodaran and Amitabh Sinha. The fact that Indian Express makes no bones about its pro-GM stance, and campaigns vigorously for GM crop approvals in India is well known. In this matter, it pretends that it has all the expertise required on the issue, and become an active advocate of GMOs rather than have a journalistic stance of generating a debate by carrying views and evidence on both sides of the debate.

This piece on February 8th 2016 seeks to explain GM mustard debate to readers and fails to present some strong arguments and evidence from the side that is opposing the regulators’ processing of GM mustard application.

Damodaran and Sinha are correct in their explanation of the reproductive physiology of mustard, and that hybrids are capable of giving higher yields. They are also right in pointing out that there is a need to improve oilseed production in the country, including that of mustard. However, what they fail to tell the readers, after making a point on the need for developing mustard hybrids is that non-transgenic mustard hybrids already exist in the market. What they also fail to tell you is that there are other ways of improving mustard yields, which rest on agronomy. Agriculture is not just about seeds, and solutions for various problems in the complex world of Indian farming are not going to emerge from seed-based research alone. Solutions exist and investments on last mile extension for taking approaches like System of Mustard Intensification are very much needed to improve mustard production and productivity in the country. What Damodaran and Sinha ignore is the key recommendation of a 2004 Task Force report (chaired by Dr M S Swaminathan) which stated that transgenic options should be looked at only when other options don’t exist or are not feasible. Clearly, this is not the case with Mustard.

The authors go on to pose further questions and answer them. “Why is this fuss about hybrid mustard”, they ask, intentionally. As though the fuss was about hybrid mustard to begin with, which they know it was not! They explain the genes used by Pental’s team in creating GM mustard hybrid and of course do not mention that the barnase gene brought from a soil bacterium is known to be toxic, in literature. They also choose not to tell us that there is indeed a chance of the barnase gene getting transferred, with the resultant plant being male sterile. After explaining the Barnase and Barstar genes’ deployment for introducing male sterility and fertility restoration, Damodaran and Sinha stop short of telling us about a third bacterial gene: the bar gene, which induces herbicide tolerance in the transgenic mustard hybrid. Herbicide tolerance is a trait that has been recommended against, by committee after committee that studied the subject in India, for different valid grounds. Why is it that this long explanatory note is selective in giving readers full information?

“Is the objection to GM justified”, is the next question our pro-GM-activist-journalists of Indian Express ask. They answer this by claiming that cotton production has gone up by more than 2.5 times since Bt hybrids were first planted in 2002. In this line, they ignore that Bt cotton came in by illegal route into India in 2001, since the authors don’t want to point to regulatory incapabilities and lacunae, we assume. They also don’t tell you that production of cotton has happened due to huge expansion in area, which could of course happen with any crop, including mustard too. And they don’t tell readers that the productivity yields in cotton are not attributable to Bt technology as much as other factors! An important point to note about Bt cotton is that it was brought it on the grounds that pesticide usage will come down, given the inbuilt pesticide-production capacity introduced through alien bacterial genes inside the plant. Today, more than 13 years after Bt cotton has been officially allowed in India, the pesticide usage in cotton has increased even in terms of per hectare intensity of usage, and not just overall usage because of expansion of cotton area. Damodaran and Sinha are not unaware of this, we are sure. It is not just pesticides but chemical fertilizer use too, that has gone up in cotton cultivation in India. And, farmer suicides of Bt cotton farmers have increased too.

The information that Indians are consuming transgenic oilseeds-based edible oil is indeed true. That does not necessarily mean that such edible oil is safe, and that we should continue consuming it. The issue with chronic impacts is that people will not fall and die as in the case of acute effects. Given the lack of labeling and segregation that India is allowing, just like in the USA, experts will find it difficult to correlate increased morbidity of certain kinds with the consumption of GM foods like these oils, and the proponents will continue to keep calling these foods safe with limited understanding on chronic effects.

What India should do is strict enforcement of both the DGFT notification that made declaration of GM food imports mandatory, and strict enforcement of a labeling regime that has made it mandatory for all GM food packages to be labeled as such, under the Legal Metrology Act. The Department of Consumer Affairs has no business continuing to say that it has no enforcement capacity for this. Further, we need a liability regime to be put into place for various issues that are going to emerge, including contamination and various adverse impacts. Amongst the much needed overhaul of the regulatory regime related to GMOs in India, these have to be addressed too.

In this entire piece, Damodaran and Sinha ignore the fact that the regulatory body is ridden with conflict of interest and that they have no qualms in holding back all information from the public despite Court orders on the matter, and also putting themselves through an oath of confidentiality, even as the past history of GEAC shows that they are unreliable and unscientific in their functioning! The authors must indeed have a strong personal activist bias, for them to be coming up with such pieces for their readers. This is misleading journalism, which is unscientific in matters of S&T for development.