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Ban on GM mustard harms Indian farmers. Supreme Court must choose science over ideology

While admitting the application seeking release of GM mustard, the Supreme Court asked farmers' union Shetkari Sanghatana, 'Where were you all these years?'

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As the Supreme Court deliberates on a case that could determine the fate of genetically modified mustard in India, a farmers’ body is making an effort to have its voice heard at India’s top court. 

The Shetkari Sanghatana, a farmers union based in Maharashtra, is opposing the petition filed by activist Aruna Rodrigues seeking a ban on genetically modified (GM) mustard. Based on their experience with Bt cotton, farmers argue that GM mustard has the potential to increase food production and improve their livelihoods.

Even though their application was taken on record on 17 November 2022, it is disheartening that the farmers—who have the most skin in the game—have not been heard by the Supreme Court so far.

While admitting the application, which advocated for the release of GM mustard, the bench asked, “Where were you all these years?” This question fails to take into account the disparity in resources and power between those fighting for and against the release of GM mustard.

Activists, with the means to approach the court and make their case, have been pushing for a complete ban on GM technology for the past two decades. Meanwhile, farmers who stand to benefit greatly have been preoccupied with the daily struggles of making a living. Should a farmer’s right to choose a better life through the use of technology be hindered by a lack of resources and access to legal avenues?

Also read: Let farmers lease land like people rent houses – Land laws are holding India back

Ban on GM crops

Commercial use of GM crops has been stuck in limbo for the past 18 years. These crops have been a contentious topic of debate in India ever since they were first introduced for commercial cultivation in 2002. Gene Campaign, an NGO with Aruna Rodrigues and others, filed a PIL in 2004 challenging the use of GM organisms. GM mustard is their latest victim.

Developed by Indian scientists, GM mustard has the potential to revolutionise agriculture and improve farmers’ livelihoods. However, activists have claimed that it poses a threat to the environment and human health. The farmers, on the other hand, argue that the ban is a major setback for agriculturalists and will put them at a disadvantage compared to farmers in other countries who are already using GM technology.

Besides improving livelihood, farmers believe that GM technology can help them adapt to changing climatic conditions, promote sustainable agriculture, and enhance food security. The Sanghatana, in its application, has urged the apex court to consider the benefits of GM mustard for farmers and the agricultural industry. A ban on such technologies would further harm the farmers, particularly in dry regions of India, where traditional farming methods have proven inadequate. The organisation emphasised that farmers should not be prevented from using technology due to unsubstantiated and superstitious beliefs held by the petitioners. GM crops can increase yields and reduce production costs, which can lead to higher profits.

Hanging in the balance

Despite the potential benefits of GM crops, their adoption in India has been slow due to regulatory hurdles and resistance by ideological activists. Looking at the challenges facing the country’s agriculture sector, it is important that all potential solutions, including GM crops, are given due consideration. Ultimately, the decision on GM mustard should be based on sound science and evidence, rather than emotion or ideology. This will ensure that any decision taken is in the best interests of all stakeholders and the environment.

While the Supreme Court is yet to announce the next date of hearing, the question remains: Will the voices of farmers finally be heard and their right to choose a dignified life through the use of technology be upheld?

Astha Pandey and Arjun Krishnan are Research Associates at Centre for Civil Society. Views are personal.

(Edited by Ratan Priya)

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