India might finally have its first transgenic seed available in farmer fields, if approved. Introduction of genetically modified (GM) mustard has had a tumultuous history in the country. Several activist groups claim that it will be a gateway to several other GM food crops — tomato, rice, brinjal, etc — and that these may pose health and ecological risks. Currently GM cotton is the only transgenic crop commercially available in farmer fields.
Even though India has planted GM cotton (also called Bt cotton), transgenic food crops have been off the table. In 2010, the Indian government refused to approve cultivation of GM brinjal. The activists won a moratorium the grounds that it hadn’t been tested adequately.
India is one of the world’s largest mustard (Brassica juncea) producers by area. More than 6 million hectares of land is currently under mustard cultivation but the yields are quite low. India’s rapeseed-mustard seed production stood at 6.3 million tonnes in 2014-15 crop year. In stark contrast, India imported 14.5 million tonnes of edible oils valued at $10.5 billion in the same period. It is impending that there is a need to raise domestic crop yields and cut dependence on imports. Hybrid technology is a potential technique to boost yields, as has been successfully demonstrated in a host of crops.
A team of scientists at Delhi University led by former vice-chancellor Deepak Pental has bred DMH-11, a genetically modified (GM) mustard hybrid. His group was ably assisted by scientists from National Dairy Development Board and the Department of Biotechnology. 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 hybridization 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 fertilized 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 hybridization system in mustard using GM technology. They took genes from a soil microbe; one gene codes for “Barnase”, an enzyme that kills cells needed for pollen development. The second gene, called “Barstar”, counteracts it. Pental inserted the Barnase gene into an Indian strain of B. juncea to create a female parent and Barstar into east European mustard. 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.
Environmentalists and critics like the Coalition for a GM-free India argue ‘that the mustard, grown for its edible leaves and for cooking oil, could harm local varieties and that the toxicity tests being carried out to evaluate GM mustard’s safety as a food are inadequate.’
“If GMOs [genetically modified organisms] contaminate these varieties,” asks Kavitha Kuruganti, “where will you get future gene stocks from?” Due to heightening suspicion, regulators have repeatedly spurned calls to release biosafety data.
Proponent of GM crops say otherwise. The risk of genetic contamination from GM crops is no higher than the risk of contamination from new non-GM crops, they say. And most mustard landraces are already safeguarded in national germplasm banks. “To me, the danger to biodiversity from transgenic mustard is not a big concern,” says Kailash C. Bansal, a plant biotechnologist at Delhi’s National Agricultural Education Project.
Similar criticism has arisen for Bt cotton as well. However, it is 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.
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 commercialization 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 starker. 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.
The Indian government has held talks with GM mustard opponents, but its secrecy with toxicity data has done little to allay concerns. “GEAC (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee) should be transparent,” says Rakesh Tuli, a plant geneticist at Punjab University in Chandigarh and a former GEAC member. “I don’t know why we believe safety data is a holy cow and cannot be made public.”
Prakash Javadekar, India’s environment minister, is hoping to avoid an impasse and thus build a consensus with the environmentalists. At the same time, he expressed concern for ensuring food security in India. Rejecting GM crops might be perceived as shutting the door on science, according to him. The government is again allowing field trials of a variety of GM crops, frozen since the brinjal controversy, and a decision on GM mustard is expected this summer.