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.
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