All Is Not Well With  Indian GM Mustard


    Recently Ministry of  Environment, Forestry and  Climate change  has placed on its web site  the  review report on assessment of  food and environmental safety  of  Genetically modified mustard  seeking public  comments. Genetically modified mustard hybrid developed by   a team of  scientists  from Delhi University, the first GM food crop  likely to be permitted  for commercial cultivation in the country a   good  discussion is taking place. There is a serious shortfall in  production and India  imports  to meet more than half  its cooking oil needs.. In 2014-15 we imported   14.5 million tones of vegetable oils  valued at $ 10.5 billions. We urgently  need a technology that  boosts yields and make the country self sufficient in  oil seed production.

A team of scientists from Delhi  University  headed by Dr. Deepak Pental  has developed a mustard hybrid DMH-11 by  genetically modifying popular mustard variety ‘Varuna’ and crossed it  with an East European line.  However  claims of 25-30 percent  more yield than the  best cultivated varieties, and a panacea  to increased  production and  solve the current scarcity of  vegetable oil  shortages in the country  appear  doubtful. Besides,  use of  cell ablation – a genetic engineering technique using   three alien genes isolated  from toxic  soil bacterium for making  Varuna,  a male sterile plant  and  the hybrid’s  ability to tolerate  high doses of herbicides sprayed in the fields  are suspicious and raise several  environmental and human health concerns. Mustard is our preferred oil in many regions of India. The green vegetable and  seeds  are part of daily menu of a Indian house wife and so it needs complete scrutiny before adopting any new technology.

Mustard is  partially a self pollinating crop with its flowers  containing both male and female organs. What Dr. Pental’s team has done in creating the hybrid DMH-11 is  making the pollen (male flowers sterile) non functional   using toxins produced by  Barnase, bar and barstar genes introduced  from soil bacterium Bacillus amyloliquifaciens and outcrossing with  distantly related East european  mustard line.

The popular breeding technique called  “Heterosis”  employed in this case, was earlier successfully   used  in creating  high yielding hybrids in cotton, maize and several vegetables. Traditionally breeders regularly  identify Male sterile and  fertile restorer lines  using available  natural germplasm to  create hybrids that  often yield high. Breeders  in G.B. Pant Agricultural University or  Indian Agricultural Research Institute   used  vast  mustard germplasm available (for example gene bank of National Bureau of Plant genetic resources, New Delhi has collection of nearly 10,000 mustard germplasm) and successfully  developed  mustard hybrids.

GM  for  food crops is unsafe:

Dr. Pental’s team  used  bacterial toxin producing genes- barnase gene for male sterility, bar-star gene, bar gene for  fertility restoration and resistance to herbicide Glufosinate, Agrobacterium tumefacians as Terminators for engineering  mustard plant which stands against applied high doses of glufosinate in the fields. Bayer markets this herbicide under the brand name  Basta and is analoguous to Monsanto’s herbicide Glyciphase.    GM mustard DMH-11  can survive  high doses of  Basta sprayed in the fields, while all other weeds perish. In developed west  herbicide resistant GM maize, cotton, Soybean and canola  are being cultivated for the last  twenty years. In these  two decades of intensive exposure high  doses of herbicide, scientists  say,  caused serious contamination of  water , soil and entered food chain resulting in adverse health problems such as   cances, Alzheimers, Autism, Parkinson disease  and several birth defects. Since, 1996, since  their introduction GM crop acreage  has increased nearly hundred times by 2015  to  nearly 200 mln ha in the world.  Well over ninety percent of the crops being sown with  herbicide  resistant   Maize, Canola, Corn, cotton and Soybean. In fact,  seeing the   ill effects  to environment and human health most of the developed Western nations are giving up their cultivation at a rate of  3 to 8 percent  per year.  But of the increase in cultivated area I s taking place in  developing countries  like India, China and Philippines. Another concern is emergence of  Super weeds- weeds that became resistant to herbicides due to  excessive  use of the later. During these 20 years, half of the farms in Canada and USA are invaded  with  glyphosate – Glufosinate resistant super weeds and ironically there are no available  weed management technologies left to control them. In this context, claims made by proponents of  GM mustard that  GM   mustard ( or canola as called in the West) cultivation is safe sounds hallow.  We need to learn  from the  mistakes done by other nations  and learn to  correct them by  takeing alternative  paths to solve  vegetable oil scarcity in the country.

Cell ablation – a genetic engineering technique employed in creation of mustard hybrid DMH-11  is in itself neutral  like nano or atomic technology depending on its use. I, personally  employed successfully cell ablation  using Barnase genes in 1996 during  my Post doctoral research  with University of Queensland to  understand the  floral  biology in   Pine trees. Though  we succeeded in stoping flowering and  found it an attractive tool in functional genomic  studies, we also observed undesirable  toxin leakage in  leaf needles, roots  and soon abandoned it due to its ill effects  to  insects, birds and other life forms dependent on the trees. We immediately abandoned using  Barnase strategy keeping in view of its ill effects to environment. However, our counter parts in Canada and Australia  continued and later  developed Canola (a close  relative of Indian mustard)  hybrids employing barnase-barstar strategy.

Another serious concern  with  commercial GM mustard carrying alien genes  leads to loss of biodiversity. India is one of the centers orign for  Mustard crop. New Delhi based National Centre for Plant Genetic resources, where I am employed  safe keeps  nearly 10,000   mustard types. There is an eminent  danger of mono culture and shrinkage  of existing  diversity of  mustard  cultivated  today in India. For example,   during the last 15 years of introduction of  Bt Cotton, it occupies nearly 95 percent of  cultivated area wiping out  all desi  varieties and hybrids.  Similar scenario could emerge with  commercialization of GM Mustardybrids in our agriculture.

Nearly four decades after Green revolution and excessive use of  pesticides  rural Punjab today is  facing serious contamination of  soil, ground water. As a consequence thousands  are  affected with   cancer and kidney ailments. There is a train that leaves Bhatinda every day to  Bikaneer in neighboring  Rajasthan carrying  hundreds of cancer patients. The  train is otherwise nick named as the cancer train. Can we imagine  rural Punjab savoring  a  boul full of “Sarasomki Saag”  containing cocktail of herbicides from  introduction of GM mustard.

  Doubtful  Claims:

To evaluate the  yield  performance,   Mustard Hybrid DMH-11 was  compared with popular   ruling varieties in field trials, conducted in various  agricultural Universities, research stations including Indian Agricultural Research Institute under the  control of ICAR from 2011- 15. A comparison of yield data between GM mustard and popular non-GM Indian varieties shows that all of them gave higher yields. In four out of six cases, the increase is more than 22%. At the field trials conducted at IARI farm, the breeders say   DMH-11 has yielded only 7.5  percent more than the  compared ruling mustard varieties. These  results seriously question the tall  claims of  high yields of DMH-11 and its capacity to   revolutionize oil seed production in the country sound  very hallow.

Restricted access to Bio-safety information and lack of transparency:

Inviting public comments on various  concerns on environment, biodiversity, herbicide tolerance, super weeds and health   from cultivation of  GM  mustard hybrid  the review report has been  placed on  government web site for public scrutiny.  Making public  should mean easy access to  all ( including farmers ) availability of  bio-safety reports & information  in a language like Hindi. But the report is in English and the  access to the full report is restricted as it can only be obtained by making a prior appointment  with GEAC secretariat’s office in New Delhi before  5th October. This  completely undermines the public dialogue by  restricting transparency and easy access to biosafety  information especially to major stalk holders- farmers.

In 1990’s  we achieved self sufficiency in Vegetable Oils:

Way back in 1986, amidst a serious shortage of vegetable oils and the country an ambitious Technology Mission on Oil seeds was initiated by then Union government   with  twin goals of  attaining  self sufficiency in edible oils by 1990 and reduction of  imports. The Mission headed by eminent agricultural scientist late Dr. M.V. Rao, successfully coordinated  different ministries, different departments under ICAR, DARE and  agricultural Universities in bringing a quantum jump in  country’s oil seed production  and made the country by 1990 almost self sufficient in vegetable oils.  With an annual growth rate of 6 percent per annum during this period of “Yellow revolution”.  Dr. Rao developed several high yielding varieties   of  oil seeds with disease and insect resistance suited to various  agro-climatic conditions. Ministry of agriculture also provided timely supply of  inputs like seeds, extension services, credit, processing, storage and marketing support. There was an over all increase in cultivated area, production (108.3  to 243.8 lah ) during the decade ending 1996. The period also  witnessed  release of 200 varieties and hybrids pushing the  productivity in oil seeds from  570 to 926 kg/ha.

Hybrids are promising means  for boosting oil seed  yields in the country. There are good  number of  scientists in various state agricultural universities and ICAR who  have  evolved many  promising varieties and hybrids by identifying  male  sterile and restorer lines  making use of Indian germplasm.  What is needed is  immediate organization of another  Technology Mission of oil seeds  with an objective to  boost oil seed production. It is  important to increase various taxes on import of vegetable oils and discourage their import. Simultaneously  our oil seed farmers should be  assured of  profitable  prices for their produce. State procurement  I assuring  remunative prices is limited to paddy and  wheat alone. A majority of our  Indian farmers are small and marginal owning  small  holdings of land (nealrly  74 percent of them own less than a Ha). But they are very   intelligent and hard working. What they need is  profitable prices for their produce and timely supply of seeds, credit and other support packages.

Haste in pushing GM  technology in to  food crops is  unwise and harmful with out  knowing full  research information about  its effects on environment and health. Rather than   handing over  our agriculture in to the hands of   profit hungry chemical and seed multi national corporations we should track with caution and immediately     encourage our scientists and farmers to increase production of oil seeds in the country.

Dr. Soma Marla, is presently working as a Principal Scientist, crop genomics with Indian Council for Agricultural research, New Delhi. He  taught and researched in plant Biotechnology in  several universities in  Australia, India and USA

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