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Nullify environmental release, uproot GM mustard plants: 111 doctors urge Modi

Counterview Desk 

In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as many as 111 medical professionals, most of them senior doctors, has expressed concern with regard to human health implications of the genetically modified (GM) herbicide tolerant (HT) mustard that got approved by Government of India, with indications that it has already been planted in at least six locations.
Floated by Dr Rupal M Dalal, a Mumbai-based pediatrician, the letter, even as “welcoming” Modi’s “unprecedented push” towards non-chemical farming in the country for the benefit of environment, nature, consumers and farmers, it said, “HT GM mustard will push the country in the opposite direction.”
“A herbicide tolerant crop will put an end to diversity-based cropping, which is important not just for soil health but human health and expose consumers and farmers to a toxic herbicide with serious long term health implications”, it added.
The letter seeks the Prime Minister’s urgent intervention to not only withdraw the approval given to GM mustard but also uproot GM mustard already planted uprooted before flowering commences.

Text:

As medical professionals and nutritionists, we welcome your initiatives to encourage farming without toxic synthetic chemicals. This should be India’s policy on food. We are, therefore, deeply concerned about the dangerous ‘environmental release’ of a genetically modified (GM) mustard DMH-11 and its two parental lines which are tolerant to the herbicide glufosinate ammonium. We are not opposed to application of gene technologies in medicine, as it is done after thorough testing, consumed by individual choice, closely monitored by expert doctors, with the GMO-mediated medicines/supplements prepared in contained conditions without any release of GMOs into the environment and can be halted/recalled. GM in farming and food is both uncontrollable and irreversible and affects both present and future generations. It involves modified heritable material that has the ability to procreate and spread in living organisms. In terms of health impacts, an adequate scientific body of evidence exists about various adverse health impacts on immunity, reproductive health, growth and development, vital organs and even carcinogenicity - from a combination of toxic genes used in genetic engineering, the GE process itself and the deadly chemicals used on GM crops. It must thus be a last resort when no other options exist and subject to proper long term biosafety tests for transparent peer review. It has been seen time and time again, however, that crop developers and regulators circumvent the need for comprehensive testing, because they know that the inherent lack of safety in this technology will get captured in the results of such testing.
In the case of GM mustard, a patently untenable claim is being made including in submissions to the Supreme Court that the herbicide glufosinate will only be used for seed production and that farmers will be prevented by legislation from spraying it for weed control. Illegal HT cotton and illegal spraying of the dangerous herbicide glyphosate has been taking place for the past decade or more, without Governments being able to stop it. Once environmentally released, GM mustard will spread and so will the use of glufosinate. Our entire population consumes mustard as seeds, leaves and oil. As medical professionals, we feel it is our duty to warn about the serious adverse impacts of Herbicide Tolerant GM crops which, in effect, this GM mustard DMH-11 is.
  1. The Herbicide Tolerance (HT) Genetic Modification of DMH-11 mustard and its parental lines enable the spraying of the herbicide, glufosinate, which will be absorbed as higher toxic chemical residues by this GM HT mustard, passed on downstream to consumers. This ignores the recommendations of three High Level Committees: The Technical Expert Committee of the Supreme Court (2013) and the unanimous reports of two multi-party (including BJP) Parliamentary Standing Committees (2014 and 2017) which examined GM crops in detail. All the Committees recommended a complete ban on Herbicide Tolerant crops in Indian conditions, giving cogent reasons. We endorse these recommendations and request you to halt the open air planting of GM mustard DMH-11. We urge the uprooting of any seeds that have been planted before they reach the flowering stage and DMH-11 spreads irreversibly.
  2. We emphasize that opposition to GM is scientifically sound. In 2001 over 760 eminent scientists highlighted the unpredictable and unintended dangers from the genetic modification process including “…the spread of antibiotic resistance marker genes that would render infectious diseases untreatable, the generation of new viruses and bacteria that cause disease, and harmful mutations which may lead to cancer.” They urged all Governments “to impose an immediate moratorium on further environmental releases, including open field trials, in accordance with the precautionary principle as well as sound science”. Over the past 25 years, the poor performance and the irreversible risks of GM crops have been such that only 5 countries still account for 91% of global GM crop area. Most countries follow the Precautionary Principle and do not grow GM crops (ISAAA data). Many of the early apprehensions by scientists have now been validated, despite the difficulty in conducting epidemiological studies in the absence of labelling laws in USA which is the largest and longest GM crop growing nation. A larger body of scientific studies through experimental studies is also present that captures the adverse impacts.
  3. Herbicide Tolerance (HT) genetic modification allows the GM HT crop to survive the indiscriminate spraying of a particular toxic herbicide, while all other non-HT plant life like weeds, mixed crop, trap crop, fodder etc. coming in contact with the herbicide, dies. The decimation of all plant life other than the GM HT crop deprives the poor of nutritious ‘weeds’ as food and medicine, reduces fodder for animals which in turn has implications for animal-based nutrition, eliminates desirable diversity of crops for home consumption and forces consumers to ingest the herbicide residues on the HT crop. Beekeepers also report that in GM crop areas, bees are adversely impacted and GM contamination of honey will affect its quality and exportability.
  4. Herbicides are powerful pesticides and the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food at the UN General Assembly’s Human Rights Council in 2017 (A/HRC/34/48) highlighted their dangers: “Pesticide exposure has been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, hormone disruption, developmental disorders and sterility. They can also cause numerous neurological health effects such as memory loss, loss of coordination, reduced visual ability and reduced motor skills.…. chronic effects of pesticides may not manifest for months or years after exposure…”
  5. The genetic modification with Bar,Barnase, Barstar genes, originating from 2 strains of bacteria which have never been part of human diet, and the insertion of a novel cassette which includes promoters, enhancers etc. can create novel proteins with unpredictable impacts. Further, the Herbicide Tolerance (HT) genes embedded in the GM mustard will facilitate the spraying of a herbicide, glufosinate ammonium, which is damaging for health. We are shocked that GEAC has till date not put biosafety test data up for peer review despite an order by the Central Information Commissioner in 2016 calling for it and despite Supreme Court orders on the same. We also understand that the necessary long term, intergenerational and other biosafety tests have not been done, and the limited tests done on GM mustard (lesser in number than were taken up for Bt brinjal even though mustard is grown on 11-fold more area). All this makes DMH-11 clearance as ‘safe’ for environment release by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) highly questionable and objectionable. It is also disturbing that an independent testing laboratory for verifying safety claims by GM developers has not yet been set up despite repeated recommendations for it.
  6. Glyphosate herbicide was once used with almost all GM HT crops, increasing 15 fold in 20 years. When weeds became resistant through constant exposure, other more toxic weedkillers started to be increasingly used. Glufosinate ammonium is an organophosphorous compound, acting as a systemic, broad spectrum and non-selective herbicide which kills a wide range of plants and soil microbes. Though it is classified by WHO as slightly riskier than glyphosate, it has not yet been the subject of independent research like glyphosate. The experience of denial of harm by crop developers and regulators for glyphosate, and the eventual revelations of harm should be a warning for us about the risks of glufosinate ammonium.
  7. When independent researchers issued warnings about glyphosate based on animal studies, these were denied and derided. Inaction by regulators can go on for decades, as happened with tobacco and DDT, in the case of products which cause harm over long durations. Independent researcher Dr Nancy Swanson and others (2014) reported highly significant (R=>0.90) Pearson correlation co-efficient between increase in GM crops, glyphosate use in USA and diseases such as acute renal failure, senile dementia, diabetes, hypertension, stroke, autism, inflammatory bowel syndrome and cancer of thyroid, liver, bladder, pancreas and kidney. This was derided, but should have been studied.
  8. When, in 2015, WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer defined glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”, US regulators supported the developers’ contention that glyphosate was safe. Only after US courts began imposing penalties of millions of dollars on Monsanto (now Bayer) and over $ 10 billion was paid by Bayer to settle about 100,000 claims mainly of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, has GMO labelling been mandated from Jan 2022.
Hippocrates said “Let your food be your medicine” 2500 years ago, and the vedas had enunciated the importance of purity in food for physical, mental and spiritual development long before that. The covid pandemic has taught us the importance of a healthy diet in building immunity and safeguarding health. Profit driven corporates and those funded by them have no such concerns. Pesticides affect both the rich and poor, but those who are malnourished, pregnant women, the developing foetus, the very young and the very old are most vulnerable to damage to their physical and mental health. We therefore appeal for:
  1. A complete ban on all HT crops, including GM mustard which has herbicide tolerance properties, as they increase the use of herbicides dangerous to health.
  2. A halt to all GM crop releases until an independent test laboratory is established as recommended by the late Padma Bhushan Dr. P. M. Bhargava, Supreme Court nominee to GEAC and eminent Founder Director of the Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology.
  3. Uprooting of all DMH-11 mustard that has been planted, to prevent the accidental or deliberate spread of a GM HT mustard in the country.
  4. Halting the illegal spread of GM crops and illegal use of herbicides.
  5. Implementation of the recommendations of the Technical Expert Committee of the Supreme Court, and the reports of the Parliamentary Standing Committees.
People have put their faith in you and nothing is more important than their health and that of their children. We are confident that you will fulfil their faith.
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