GM row again, with mustard topping

On Friday, the country’s biotechnology regulator deferred a decision on allowing commercial cultivation of Mustard DMH-11, a transgenic crop developed by Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants at Delhi University.

Written by Harish Damodaran , Amitabh Sinha | Updated: February 8, 2016 12:05 pm
A mustard field in Kashmir. With edible oil prodution stuck at 7.5 mn tonnes, India depends hugely on exports. A mustard field in Kashmir. With edible oil prodution stuck at 7.5 mn tonnes, India depends hugely on imports.

On Friday, the country’s biotechnology regulator deferred a decision on allowing commercial cultivation of Mustard DMH-11, a transgenic crop developed by Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants at Delhi University. It revive memories of Bt brinjal, whose commercial approval is on hold since 2009. Harish Damodaran and Amitabh Sinha explain why Mustard DMH-11 has met the same fate.

What really is GM mustard?

A team of scientists at Delhi University led by former vice-chancellor Deepak Pental has bred DMH-11, a genetically modified (GM) mustard hybrid. Hybrids are normally obtained by crossing two genetically diverse plants from the same species. The first-generation offspring resulting from it has higher yields than what either of the parents is individually capable of giving. But there is no natural hybridisation system in mustard, unlike in, say, cotton, maize or tomato. This is because its flowers contain both the female (pistil) and male (stamen) reproductive organs, making the plant naturally self-pollinating. To the extent that the egg cells of one plant cannot be fertilised by the pollen discharged from the stamen of another, it restricts the scope for developing hybrids.

What Pental’s team has done is create a viable hybridisation system in mustard using GM technology. The resulting GM mustard hybrid, it is claimed, gives 25-30 per cent more yield than the best varieties such as ‘Varuna’ currently grown in the country.

Is there a need, in the first place, for developing a mustard hybrid?

In 2014-15, India imported 14.5 million tonnes of edible oils valued at $10.5 billion. That included nearly 0.4 million tonnes of imported rapeseed oil, which many processors and traders are blending with indigenous mustard oil. With the country’s own annual edible oil production stuck at below 7.5 million tonnes, of which mustard’s share is roughly a quarter, the need to raise domestic crop yields and cut dependence on imports cannot be doubted. Hybrid technology is a potential technique to boost yields, as has been successfully demonstrated in a host of crops.

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Why, then, this fuss about hybrid mustard?

The only reason is that it has been created using GM technology, involving incorporation of alien genes.

Pental’s team has used a “Barnase” gene isolated from a soil bacterium called Bacillus amyloliquefaciens. It codes for a protein that impairs pollen production and renders the plant into which it has been introduced male-sterile. This male-sterile plant is crossed with a fertile parental line, containing, in turn, another gene, “Barstar”, from the same bacterium that blocks the action of the “Barnase” gene. The resultant progeny, having both the foreign genes, is a hybrid mustard plant that is not only high-yielding, but also fertile and capable of producing seed/grain (thanks to the “Barstar” gene in the second fertile line).

Is the objection to GM justified?

GM technology has already been commercialised in India through Bt cotton, which is also based on incorporation of foreign genes derived from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis. While there are fierce opponents of it, it is also a fact that the country’s cotton production has gone up more than 2½ times since Bt hybrids were first planted in 2002. Nor has any evidence emerged really of Bt cotton causing any adverse human or animal health effects.

The opponents of GM mustard point out that cotton is not a food crop, while mustard is India’s largest edible oil-yielding crop. However, there are many inconsistencies in this argument too. First, cotton-seed yields not only fibre (lint), but also oil and oilcake (meal) fed to animals. Cotton-seed oil is, in fact, the second largest produced edible oil in the country (1.4 million tonnes) after mustard (2 million tonnes). That makes cotton no less of a food crop. And since 95 per cent of India’s cotton production is today Bt, its allegedly harmful toxins would already have been consumed directly or indirectly during the last decade and more.

Secondly, India annually imports 3 million tonnes of soyabean oil and another 0.4 million tonnes of rapeseed oil, which are predominantly GM.

Also, in this case, the developer is a government-funded institution, as opposed to Bt cotton which was the proprietary technology of a multinational, namely Monsanto.

Is the opposition, therefore, only ideological?

Most of it is. There was similar opposition to Bt brinjal, another GM crop approved by the GEAC in 2009. Following protests, the approval was put on indefinite hold by then environment minister Jairam Ramesh. Those opposing Bt brinjal then or DMH-11 mustard now have admitted being against the genetic modification technology itself, at least when it comes to its use in agriculture.

At the same time, their complaints against a less-than-robust regulatory environment for genetically modified organisms in the country are genuine. There is lack of transparency as well as conflict of interest in the system. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, which is responsible for approving large-scale releases and commercialisation of GMOs, functions under the Ministry of Environment and Forests and is not entirely independent. The case of the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation that supervises and clears research activities and also small-scale field trials is even more stark. It is part of the Department of Biotechnology, whose primary task is to promote biotechnology. DBT therefore is the promoter as well as the regulator. On several occasions, developers of transgenic crops have also been members of regulatory committees.

Why is the regulatory environment not being reformed?

For several years now, especially since the controversy around Bt brinjal in 2009, the government has been trying to create an independent biotechnology regulatory authority, a single organisation that will replace the multiple committees — at least six — that are part of the current regulatory structure. This authority would deal with the use of all GMOs in agriculture, pharmaceutical and biodiversity sector.

The proposed structure and governance of the authority has been revised several times and at least three Bills have been introduced in Parliament, the last one in 2013. But the Bills have not received enough support in Parliament or have lapsed. By the end of last year, the DBT had finalised the latest version of the Bill proposing a regulator and a new biotechnology policy. It is still to be introduced in Parliament.