1. The new hybrid variant of mustard
How significant is the development of the Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11)? Why are some activist groups opposing the commercial release of the crop? What are their allegations? How many transgenic crops are commercially cultivated in India?
The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), India’s apex regulator of genetically modified plants and food products, has approved the environmental release of Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11), a genetically-engineered variant of mustard.
Trials conducted over three years by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) suggest that DMH-11 has 28% higher yields than its parent Varuna and was 37% better than zonal checks, or local varieties that are considered the best in different agro-climatic zones.
Activist groups allege that the GM mustard hasn’t been evaluated as a herbicide tolerant crop posing potential risks. They also allege that GM mustard plants may dissuade bees from pollinating the plant and this could have knock-off environmental catastrophes.
The story so far:
The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), India’s apex regulator of genetically modified plants and food products, has approved the environmental release of Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11), a genetically-engineered variant of mustard. If approved for commercial cultivation it would be the first genetically modified food crop available to Indian farmers.
What is DMH-11?
DMH-11 is a hybrid variant of mustard developed by researchers at The Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants, at the University of Delhi. Deepak Pental, who has led the efforts to develop hybrid mustard at the Centre for decades and was a former Vice-Chancellor of the University, began with DMH-1, a hybrid variant that was developed without transgenic technology. DMH-1 was approved for commercial release in northwest India in 2005-2006 but scientists have said that this technology wasn’t bankable enough to consistently produce hybrid mustard. While India has several mustard varieties, it is a self-pollinating plant and therefore a challenge for plant-breeders to cross different mustard varieties and induce desirable traits. Being able to turn off this self-pollinating trait to enable such crossings and then restoring the trait, to enable seed production, is how the mustard plant’s genes are to be manipulated. DMH-11 is a result of a cross between two varieties: Varuna and Early Heera-2. Such a cross wouldn’t have happened naturally and was done after introducing genes from two soil bacterium called barnase and barstar. Barnase in Varuna induces a temporary sterility because of which it can’t naturally self-pollinate. Barstar in Heera blocks the effect of barnase allowing seeds to be produced. The result is DMH-11 (where 11 refers to the number of generations after which desirable traits manifest) that not only has better yield but is also fertile. DMH-11 is a transgenic crop because it uses foreign genes from a different species.
Are hybrid mustard varieties better ?
Trials conducted over three years by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) suggest that DMH-11 has 28% higher yields than its parent Varuna and was 37% better than zonal checks, or local varieties that are considered the best in different agro-climatic zones. These trials were conducted at eight locations over three years. DMH-11 rather than being an end in itself signals the proof of success of the barnase-barstar system that can act as a platform technology to develop newer hybrids. Scientists say that having better hybrids is necessary to meet India’s rising edible-oil import bill. Mustard (Brassica juncea) is cultivated in 6-7 million hectares during the Rabi winter season predominantly in Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh. India imports anywhere from 55-60% of its domestic edible-oil requirement. In 2020-21, around 13.3 million tonnes of edible oil were imported at a cost of ₹1,17,000 crore according to the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences. This is primarily due to low productivity — of about 1-1.3 tonnes/hectare — that has been stagnant for over two decades. On the other hand, hybrid mustard and rapeseed are the dominant form of oil seeds in Canada, China and Europe. So, proponents say, the only way to improve India’s productivity is to have more mustard hybrids.
Why is it controversial?
There are two main reasons why transgenic mustards are a topic of debate. The use of genes that are foreign to the species is one and secondly, the preparation of mustard hybrids require the use of another gene, called the bar gene, that makes it tolerant to a herbicide called glufosinate-ammonium. Activist groups allege that the GM mustard hasn’t been evaluated as a herbicide tolerant crop posing potential risks. Finally, they allege, GM mustard plants may dissuade bees from pollinating the plant and this could have knock-off environmental catastrophes. Activist groups have also been supported by the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, an Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh affiliate, who have consistently opposed GM crops.
What next for GM mustard?
This isn’t the first time that the GEAC has cleared the environmental release of GM mustard. In 2017 too, the apex body had cleared it but the process got stalled after a case was lodged in the Supreme Court. The government, or specifically the Environment Ministry, hasn’t officially supported GM mustard despite the GEAC being a body under it. Bt Brinjal, the first transgenic food crop, too was cleared by the GEAC in 2009 but was put on hold by the then-UPA government on the grounds that more tests were needed. Currently the only transgenic crop grown in India is Bt-cotton. The GEAC go-ahead only allows DMH-11 to be grown in fields under the supervision of the ICAR. The Indian Agricultural Research Institute has said that the crop would be commercially available after “three seasons” now that they can be grown in large quantities for evaluation.
2. Can convicted legislators be disqualified from Assembly?
Why were the two Uttar Pradesh legislators awarded prison sentences? Under what conditions can an MLA/MP, sentenced by the Court, be removed from their positions?
Section 8 of the Representation of the People Act (RPA), 1951, contains provisions aimed at decriminalising electoral politics.
There are two categories of criminal cases that attract disqualification upon conviction. In the first category are offences that entail disqualification for a period of six years upon any conviction. All other criminal provisions form a separate category under which mere conviction will not entail disqualification.
The Supreme Court has the power to stay not only the sentence, but also the conviction of a person. In some rare cases, conviction has been stayed to enable the appellant to contest an election.
The story so far:
Two Uttar Pradesh legislators were convicted on criminal charges in recent days, but only one of them has been disqualified and his seat declared vacant by the State’s Legislative Assembly secretariat. Azam Khan, the Samajwadi Party MLA for Rampur, was sentenced to a three-year jail term, for making an inflammatory speech in 2019. As disqualification upon conviction on a criminal charge, accompanied by a prison sentence of two years and more is immediate, the Assembly secretariat declared his seat vacant. However, there has been no such response in regard to Vikram Singh Saini, MLA from Khatauli, after he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in connection with the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013.
When does conviction attract disqualification?
Section 8 of the Representation of the People Act (RPA), 1951, contains provisions aimed at decriminalising electoral politics. There are two categories of criminal cases that attract disqualification upon conviction. In the first category are offences that entail disqualification for a period of six years upon any conviction. If the punishment is a fine, the six-year period will run from the date of conviction, but if there is a prison sentence, the disqualification will begin on the date of conviction, and will continue up to the completion of six years after the date of release from jail. Major IPC offences are included under this head: making speeches that cause enmity between groups (Sec.153A) and doing so in a place of worship (Sec.505), bribery and personation during elections and other electoral offences, offences relating to rape and cruelty to women by husband and latter’s relatives. Besides, serious provisions of special laws such as the Protection of Civil Rights Act, Customs Act, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act etc are among the category of offences that entail disqualification regardless of the quantum of punishment. Laws for prevention of Sati, corruption, terrorism and insult to national flag and national anthem etc are also part of this group. All other criminal provisions form a separate category under which mere conviction will not entail disqualification. A sentence of at least two years in prison is needed to incur such disqualification.
Is there legal protection for legislators against disqualification?
Under Section 8(4) of the RPA, legislators could avoid immediate disqualification until 2013. The provision said that with respect to a Member of Parliament or a State legislator the disqualification will not take effect for three months. If within that period, the convicted legislator files an appeal or revision application, it will not take effect until the disposal of the appeal or application. In other words, the mere filing of an appeal against conviction will operate as a stay against disqualification. In Lily Thomas vs. Union of India, the Supreme Court struck down clause (4) as unconstitutional, thus removing the protection enjoyed by lawmakers.
Can the disqualification be removed?
The Supreme Court has the power to stay not only the sentence, but also the conviction of a person. In some rare cases, conviction has been stayed to enable the appellant to contest an election. However, the SC has made it clear that such a stay should be very rare and for special reasons. The RPA itself provides a remedy through the Election Commission. Under Sec. 11 of the Act, the EC may record reasons and either remove, or reduce the period of, a person’s disqualification. The EC exercised this power for Sikkim Chief Minister P.S. Tamang, who served a one-year sentence for corruption, and reduced his disqualification so as to contest a byelection and remain in office.
3. Uttarakhand’s Uniform Civil Code committee sifts through four lakh suggestions, plans more outreach
Responses to ‘One law for all’ cover a range of subjects, from ‘reverse inheritance’ and banning polygamy and polyandry to same age of marriage for men and women; most comments received by panel from tribal belts and rural and hilly areas
The five-member team formed to frame the draft for a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) in Uttarakhand is currently struggling to read and analyse over three lakh handwritten letters, 60,000 e-mails, and 22,000 suggestions uploaded on its website by residents of the hill State sharing their view and recommendations on “One law for all”.
Among the suggestions, which have mostly been received from tribal belts and rural and hilly areas, are policy interventions on “reverse inheritance” (parents to have rights over their offspring’s property), same age of marriage for both genders, and a total ban on polygamy and polyandry.
Speaking to The Hindu, a member of the panel said they were currently in the process of reading the approximately four lakh suggestions, which may take a month or possibly more time. “We are trying to incorporate all the suggestions given by the people, especially related to gender equality,” the member said.
The State has a population of about one crore. Asked how an unbiased uniform law can emerge from the views of about 4% of the population (going by the number of suggestions received), a senior member said the exercise was not even needed to legislate if the government intended to do so. “Asking suggestions from people is a healthy way to make laws. This 4% may look a small number but the suggestions we have received are great and worth incorporating,” the member added.
The panel has so far held 18 meetings at various places in the State, including at the last village in Chamoli district, Mana. People in Nabi, Gunji and Kuti villages of Pithoragarh district along the India-Nepal border have also responded. All these villages are in tribal-dominated regions.
The panel is going to recommence its public outreach to create awareness on the subject from November 9. “The tribal community was more aware of the UCC then those in the plains. They wanted gender neutral laws for all, in matters pertains to marriage, divorce and succession, to name a few,” the member said.
Another member said elderly people in Pithoragarh told them that they had spent all they had on the education of their children and on sending them to cities but received nothing in return when they became old and helpless. “They questioned us that if children have equal rights in parents’ income and property, parents should also be given equal rights [on their children’s property] so that they can also live a decent life as their children live,” the member said, adding that this suggestion would be included in the recommendations, along with another in which young men and women asked to have the same age for marriage.
“We have received suggestions to ban polygamy and polyandry, which too is common in the interior areas of the State,” the member said.
The expert committee was formed by the Uttarakhand government to examine ways for implementing a UCC. A website was launched in September, seeking views from the public by October 22.
The committee is headed by retired judge Ranjana Prakash Desai. The other members are retired judge Pramod Kohli, social worker Manu Gaur, retired IAS officer Shatrughan Singh, and Vice-Chancellor of Doon University Surekha Dangwal.
Uniform Civil Code
- UCC is one that would provide for one law for the entire country, applicable to all religious communities in their personal matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, adoption etc.
- Article 44 of the Constitution lays down that the state shall endeavour to secure a UCC for the citizens throughout the territory of India.
- Article 44 is one of the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP).
- DPSP as defined in Article 37, are not justiciable (not enforceable by any court) but the principles laid down therein are fundamental in governance.
Status of Uniform Codes in India:
- Indian laws do follow a uniform code in most civil matters such as Indian Contract Act 1872, Civil Procedure Code, Transfer of Property Act 1882, Partnership Act 1932, Evidence Act, 1872 etc.
- States, however, have made hundreds of amendments and, therefore, in certain matters, there is diversity even under these secular civil laws.
- Recently, several states refused to be governed by the uniform Motor Vehicles Act, 2019.
- The origin of the UCC dates back to colonial India when the British government submitted its report in 1835 stressing the need for uniformity in the codification of Indian law relating to crimes, evidence, and contracts, specifically recommending that personal laws of Hindus and Muslims be kept outside such codification.
- Increase in legislation dealing with personal issues in the far end of British rule forced the government to form the B N Rau Committee to codify Hindu law in 1941.
- Based on these recommendations, a bill was then adopted in 1956 as the Hindu Succession Act to amend and codify the law relating to intestate or unwilled succession, among Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs.
- However, there were separate personal laws for muslim, chirstian and Parsis.
- In order to bring uniformity, the courts have often said in their judgements that the government should move towards a UCC.
- The judgement in the Shah Bano case (1985) is well known.
- Another case was the Sarla Mudgal Case (1995), which dealt with issue of bigamy and conflict between the personal laws existing on matters of marriage.
- By arguing that practices such as triple talaq and polygamy impact adversely the right of a woman to a life of dignity, the Centre has raised the question whether constitutional protection given to religious practices should extend even to those that are not in compliance with fundamental rights.
Implications of Uniform Civil Code on Personal Laws:
- Protection to Vulnerable Section of Society: The UCC aims to provide protection to vulnerable sections as envisaged by Ambedkar including women and religious minorities, while also promoting nationalistic fervour through unity.
- Simplification of Laws: The code will simplify the complex laws around marriage ceremonies, inheritance, succession, adoptions making them one for all. The same civil law will then be applicable to all citizens irrespective of their faith.
- Adhering to Ideal of Secularism: Secularism is the objective enshrined in the Preamble, a secular republic needs a common law for all citizens rather than differentiated rules based on religious practices.
- Gender Justice: If a UCC is enacted, all personal laws will cease to exist. It will do away with gender biases in existing laws.
- Exceptions in Central Family Laws:
- The preliminary sections in all central family law Acts enacted by Parliament since Independence declare that they will apply to “the whole of India except the state of Jammu and Kashmir.”
Ø A Second exception was added in 1968 in all these Acts, pronouncing that “nothing herein contained shall apply to the Renoncants in the Union Territory of Pondicherry.”
Ø A third exception, none of these Acts applies in Goa, Daman and Diu.
Ø A fourth exception, relating to the north-eastern states of Nagaland and Mizoram, emanates from Articles 371A and 371G of the Constitution, decreeing that no parliamentary legislation will replace the customary law and religion-based system for its administration.
· Communal Politics:
Ø The demand for a uniform civil code has been framed in the context of communal politics.
Ø A large section of society sees it as majoritarianism under the garb of social reform.
· Constitutional Hurdle:
Article 25 of Indian constitution, that seeks to preserve the freedom to practise and propagate any religion gets into conflict with the concepts of equality enshrined under Article 14 of Indian Constitution.
4. Editorial-1: The most dangerous moment since 1962
In October 1962, when the United States discovered that the Soviet Union had moved nuclear missiles to Cuba, U.S. President John F. Kennedy called it “a deliberately provocative and unjustified change in the status quo which cannot be accepted by this country…” He ordered a naval quarantine of Cuba, thus blocking access for Soviet ships. He had appointed an executive committee of his National Security Council to advise him on possible reactions. While most members of the ExComm favoured airstrikes on Cuba targeting the Soviet missiles, Kennedy stuck to quarantine, which was also one of the recommendations of the committee. At the same time, he opened a back channel to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev through his brother Robert Kennedy. “Even if he (President Kennedy) doesn’t want or desire a war, something irreversible could occur against his will. If the situation continues much longer, the President is not sure that the military will not overthrow him and seize power,” Robert Kennedy told the Soviet Ambassador in Washington. Khrushchev reciprocated to Kennedy’s message, which he saw as a “call for help”, and both leaders pulled their countries back from the brink of a nuclear war.
The world has seen several military conflicts since the Cuban missile crisis. There have been wars across continents. Both the former Soviet Union and the U.S. had launched interventions, invasions and proxy conflicts in weaker countries. But a 1962-like scenario, where two nuclear superpowers came eyeball to eyeball never happened — until the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis. Eight months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, this is what it looks like it is: a complex polycentric conflict where, inside Ukrainian territory, Russia’s nuclear-armed forces are battling high-performing Ukrainian troops that are directly assisted, in terms of money, weapons and fighters, by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the trans-Atlantic nuclear alliance.
Origins of crises
Besides fears of the existing conflict escalating into a direct Russia-NATO war, there are similarities and dissimilarities between the Cuban missile crisis and the Ukraine war. The similarities begin with the origins of both crises. Khrushchev secretly moved the nuclear missiles to Cuba after the failed Central Intelligence Agency-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of the island in 1961, where the guerillas, under the command of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, had overthrown a pro-American military dictatorship in 1959. Later, the Soviets claimed that the missiles were for defensive purposes, but the U.S. found the presence of nuclear missiles in an island 145 km off the coast of Florida as a security threat. Put simply, the U.S. would not accept any challenge to its hegemony in the western hemisphere, its immediate periphery.
The origins of the Ukraine crisis can be traced to NATO’s eastward expansion. When NATO took in more countries and pushed its borders towards Russia’s periphery, both the group’s leadership and the new members emphasised that they were a defensive alliance and did not pose any threat to Moscow. They also argued that the former Soviet allies and the (newly born) republics were independent entities that could take sovereign decisions on whether they should join any military alliance or not. Yet, like Kennedy and his national security team did not accept the Soviet argument that the Cuban missiles were for defensive purposes, or that Cuba was an independent country which could take sovereign decisions on whether it should host Soviet missiles or not, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his team did not buy NATO’s similar arguments. Mr. Putin saw NATO’s expansion into and growing influence on the old Russian rim land as a national security threat to Russia, just like Kennedy saw the presence of Soviet missiles in the Caribbean as a national security threat to the U.S.
But the similarities end there. The Cuban missile crisis was a crisis that was resolved before it actually slid into war, whereas in the case of Ukraine, a full-scale war began on February 24 with the Russian invasion, which makes the crisis even more complex and demands more urgent calls for enhanced diplomatic efforts. Mr. Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden missed the bus to avert an actual conflict, but they can still avert a catastrophic direct Russia-NATO war. But are they doing anything to meet that?
The spiral model
The current phase of the Ukraine war is a textbook example of what international relations theorists call a spiral model, where parties treat each other with matching hostility, sharply escalating an existing conflict. Even if there is no desire for a nuclear war on both sides, escalatory spirals could be dangerous, which, if left unchecked, could take their own course. Still, why is there no conscious diplomatic effort to create conditions for talks?
One way to look at conflicts is to take a moral, normative view of them. The mainstream narrative in the U.S. about Mr. Putin matches this view — he is the aggressor, who has violated international laws and norms by invading Ukraine and annexing its territories, and, therefore, Washington would not hold talks with the Kremlin. This normative absolutism is not consistent with the past and present of American foreign policy. The U.S. itself has violated UN norms several times in its interventions abroad and it had no moral qualms in recognising its ally Israel’s illegal annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights or recognising the disputed Jerusalem, half of which has been illegally annexed by Israel, as its capital.
A more realistic explanation is that Washington sees an opportunity in the Ukraine war to weaken Russia by continuing to arm Ukraine. As per this narrative, Russian failure in Ukraine could have political consequences, including challenges to Mr. Putin’s hold on power. So, escalation becomes a policy of choice. The Russians, on the other side, see the U.S. as the main force behind Ukraine, before and after the war began. As a failure in Ukraine will have both security and political consequences, Mr. Putin cannot afford to make compromises. Escalation becomes the way ahead for him as well. This is a dangerous slope.
Unless the leaders break the spiral, the conflict will keep deteriorating, as was evident in Russia’s recent attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure and the Ukrainian drone attack in Sevastopol, Crimea. To break the spiral, the parties will have to first look beyond their personalist view of the conflict and try to understand the structural conditions which their rivals operate from. This would allow the leaders to empathise with their rivals, irrespective of their moral positions (what Realists call strategic empathy), and take difficult decisions to make peace. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky says he would not talk with Russia as long as Mr. Putin is the President. Mr. Biden says “Putin cannot remain in power”. But is there any certainty that the security situation in Europe would be better if the Putin regime collapses? Did the collapse of the communist Soviet Union bring lasting peace to Europe? For Mr. Putin, Washington is the sum of all evil. But how can he expect President Biden to sit idle when Russia seeks to redesign the European security architecture through force? Which American President will do so?
Kennedy and Khrushchev had shown strategic empathy to understand the predicament both leaders were in, and they could make difficult choices. But Mr. Putin and Mr. Biden are in their own silos, blaming each other and blindly pursuing their goals through force, while Ukraine is on fire. The sooner they come out of it, the better for the world.
5. Editorial-2: A chance to expand the world’s biosphere footprint
November 3 will be the first ‘The International Day for Biosphere Reserves’, to be celebrated beginning 2022. The World Network of Biosphere Reserves (WNBR) was formed in 1971, as a backbone for biodiversity conservation, ecosystem restoration, and living in harmony with nature. There are now 738 properties in 134 countries, including 12 in India, four in Sri Lanka, and three in the Maldives.
Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal do not have biospheres as yet, but help is on its way: The ‘South and Central Asia MAB Reserve’ Networking Meeting (where MAB stands Man and the Biosphere) is planned for 2023, to advance biosphere reserve establishment, and management. UNESCO is ready to assist in carrying out a professional potentiality analysis. In addition, an expert mission has been planned for spring 2023 — to Bhutan, India’s north-east and the Sundarbans in Bangladesh.
An ideal platform to network
The WNBR, an amazing network of sites of excellence, is a unique tool for cooperation through sharing knowledge, exchanging experiences, building capacity and promoting best practices. Its members are always ready to support each other. This kind of help extended through the network is of great importance because the ecological carrying capacity of the planet earth has been exceeded. We have to revert to living in harmony with nature — to breathe clean air again, have access to enough good water, eat nutritious and affordable food, and live in dignity.
Our planet has been set up uniquely in the solar system so that ecosystems can function and provide a home for all living creatures. From whatever vantage point we look at nature conservation — an environmental, cultural or even a religious point of view — it is our responsibility to respect nature.
The best concept for ‘Living in Harmony with Nature’ that exists in the United Nations system, is the WNBR, making these places more important today than ever before, where humans are thriving and relearning how to live with nature.
Opportunities in South Asia
In South Asia, over 30 biosphere reserves have been established. The first one was the Hurulu Biosphere Reserve, in Sri Lanka, with 25,500 hectares of tropical dry evergreen forest. In India, the first biosphere reserve was designated by UNESCO in 2000, namely, the blue mountains of the Nilgiris stretching over Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. India’s network of reserves has gone from strength to strength. Considering the massive long-term threats to human survivability (besides pandemics and armed conflicts), such as biodiversity loss, climate change, pollution and population dynamics, accelerated by the blind belief in technological solutions for all problems, we need many more biosphere reserves globally. South Asia offers countless options.
India is a vast sub-continent, an emerging superpower of unlimited opportunities. It has become an important global player on environmental sustainability issues. India is likely to become the world’s most populated country in 2023.
Spain, with a landmass of 506,000 km2, and a population of 47.4 million is one of the lead participating WNBR countries globally, with 53 properties. In a comparison with the surface size of Spain to India (ca. 3.3 million km2), and India’s human population of ca. 1.4 billion people, it appears a good idea to carry out a potentiality analysis of biosphere reserves in India, with a focus on the seven sisters in north-east India.
South Asia has a very diverse set of ecosystems, with Bhutan, India, and Nepal combined having thousands of glaciers, surrounded by lakes and alpine ecosystems.
As an article by Eric Falt highlights, biosphere reserves have all developed science-based management plans, where local solutions for sustainable human living and nature conservation are being tested, and best practices applied. Issues of concern include biodiversity, clean energy, climate, environmental education, and water and waste management, supported by scientific research and monitoring.
All biosphere reserves are internationally recognised sites on land, at the coast, or in the oceans. Governments alone decide which areas to nominate.
Before approval by UNESCO, the sites are externally examined. If approved, they will be managed based on a plan, reinforced by credibility checks while remaining under the sovereignty of their national government.
Some of the countries in South Asia do not yet have any or enough biosphere reserves. In most, if not all cases, the political will is certainly there, but there is a lack of know-how and financial resources. Of course, more financial support from the richer nations and the private sector would be desirable to advance biosphere reserves in these countries. Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal are on our priority list.
The existence of the new World Network of Mountain Biosphere Reserves provides a welcome opportunity for Bhutan and Nepal to establish their first biosphere reserves and participate in the world network. If these pockets of hope can expand, with at least one biosphere reserve per country in Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal until 2025 (with additional biosphere reserves in India’s North-East and along the coasts) it will give realisation to millions of people that a better future is truly possible — one where we will truly live in harmony with nature.
6. Editorial-3: Seeds of hope
Scientific consent must dictate product availability to farmers and consumers
After years of being in limbo, there is a surge of optimism around DMH-11, or Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11, a variety developed using genetic engineering techniques by Indian scientists and public funds. The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the apex regulator and an arm of the Environment Ministry, last week cleared the variety for environmental release. The seed can be grown in fields for producing more of its kind and is a precursor to it being approved for commercial release. DMH-11 employs genes from soil bacterium that makes mustard, a self-pollinating plant, amenable to being crossed with other varieties and producing hybrid varieties. Hybrid varieties are generally more vigorous and, in the case of mustard, an oil seed, will produce more oil. Despite having varieties of mustard, India continues to be a net oil importer due to poor yields. The food crisis due to the Ukraine war has only exacerbated the problem. Despite decades-long trials, mustard hybrids have not made it to Indian farmers because of activists opposed to genetic modification technology in principle and some farmer groups that believe them to be dangerous.
While several top scientists and agricultural experts have cheered the GEAC approval, the celebration ought to be muted. In 2017 too, GEAC had cleared the plant and then did a backtrack by introducing additional tests after protests. In 2009, GEAC had cleared Bt Brinjal, a transgenic food crop, only to be over-ruled by the UPA government — again after protests. Agriculture, being a State subject, may merit political scrutiny before a seed can be commercially released; however, in the case of transgenic technology, these decisions have only served to throttle technological progress. The hold, or the so-called ‘moratorium’, on Bt Brinjal persists and it was only in 2020 that GEAC approved fresh field trials, which were in effect repetitions of earlier tests. It is unclear if it will be available in the immediate future. The barnase-barstar system, used in DMH-11, is promising but already outdated given that cutting-edge technology such as CRISPR is in vogue. DMH-11 alone may not be the panacea for India’s edible oil crisis and rather represents a platform technology that requires seed companies to invest and develop their own hybrids. However, the uncertainty around regulatory policy regarding seed development hinders this. To signal transformation, the Government must second the approval by GEAC and restore the system, whereby scientific consent — rather than political considerations — determines the availability of products to farmers and consumers.