Agriculture

DTE Coverage: Does India really need GM mustard

GM Mustard’s approval could rather open the door for free use of the technology in other food crops

 
By Himanshu Nitnaware, Shagun
Published: Sunday 11 December 2022
Why GM mustard
Beekeepers at a protest against 
GM mustard in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, 
on November 4 (photograph: vikas choudhary) Beekeepers at a protest against GM mustard in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, on November 4 (photograph: vikas choudhary)

Since October 25, Deepak Pental has become a highly sought-after person. That day, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) sent a letter to Pental, a geneticist and former vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi, stating that his application for environmental release of a transgenic mustard hybrid, which he developed in 2002, has been approved.

The environmental clearance means that the genetically modified (GM) mustard, named Dhara Mustard Hybrid (DMH-11), can now be grown in open fields for trials, demonstrations and for seeds — a precursor to the approval for commercial cultivation of the country’s first GM food crop. India has so far approved only one GM crop, Bt cotton, for commercial cultivation.

The ministry gave its approval to the GM mustard within a week of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), India’s apex regulator for transgenic products, gave the go-ahead to field trials of the crop, and decided to begin the field trials even before the news broke out.

On October 31, the last day of mustard sowing season in the country, MoEFCC held a press conference which was addressed by two key scientific bodies — the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NASS) and the Trust for Advancement of Agricultural Sciences (TASS).

Trilochan Mohapatra, president of NASS, and RS Paroda, chairperson of TASS, told the media that the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) would conduct the field trials in the next 10-15 days in key mustard-growing states of Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

The seeds would be sown at 100 locations to verify the yield.

Officials with ICAR’s Directorate of Rapeseed-Mustard Research (DRMR) in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, which is to supervise rolling out of the crop, rushed to the University of Delhi to procure the seeds from Pental, who was the only person to have a stock of 10 kg of DMH-11.

On November 1, when DTE spoke to Pental, he was not enthusiastic about the trial. “It is too late for sowing. The trial might not show good results,” he said.

However, three days later, ICAR decided to put the field trial on hold, after a group of farmers, researchers and activists, assembled under the Coalition for a GM-Free India, moved the Supreme Court on November 2 against the approval to the GM mustard.

Tracing the roots

The government and the scientists pushing for DMH-11 say it is crucial to make India self-sufficient in edible oils.

“The country faces a 55-60 per cent of edible oil shortage. In 2021, India imported 13.35 million tonnes of oils to meet the demand, which cost Rs 117,000 crore to the country’s exchequer,” said K C Bansal, secretary of NAAS.

At the current consumption rate, P K Rai, director of DRMR, told DTE that India will need 34 million tonnes of edible oils by 2025-26, which will put a significant pressure on the country’s foreign exchange reserves.

Rai said mustard has the potential to turn around the situation, as it contributes 40 per cent of total edible oils production in India. Soyabean and groundnut, the other major oilseed crops, account for 18 per cent and 15 per cent of the total edible oil production.

At present, mustard is grown in eight million hectares, with the average yield of 1-1.3 tonnes per hectare. Bansal claimed that the transgenic seeds could potentially raise the yields to 3-3.5 tonnes per hectare.

They are also resistant to pests that cause white rust, a common disease of mustard, and thereby significantly improve yield while reducing farm input costs.

Propagators of DMH-11 also claim that a transgenic variety was needed as developing high-yielding and pest-resistant varieties of mustard using traditional cross-breeding methods is challenging.

The plant is mainly self-pollinating with male (anther) and female (pistil) reproductive parts present in the same flower. Therefore, breeders trying to cross two different parental lines to produce a hybrid offspring with desired traits make one of the parents male sterile to encourage cross-pollination.

This also takes a long time. Genetic manipulation, however, allows scientists to avoid these problems and directly change the genetic makeup of a plant so that it exhibits the desired trait, say, it becomes resistant to a particular pest.

Pental and his team of researchers at the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants, University of Delhi, created DMH-11 by using both hybrid and transgenic methods.

The goal was to cross the high-yielding Indian variety, Varuna, with Eastern Europe variety, Early Heera-2, which grows faster and has a high biomass.

To make this possible, they used a genetically engineered technique developed by Belgian scientists in the 1990s, to first induce male sterility in one of the parental lines and then restore fertility in the offspring.

Two genes — barnase and barstar — were chosen from soil bacterium Bacillus amyloliquefaciens and inserted into the DNA of the mustard plant. Within the anther, barnase selectively destroys the cell layer that surrounds the pollen sac, preventing pollen formation and thereby leading to male sterility.

Barstar then suppresses the activity of barnase in the progeny and restores fertility. “Additionally, we have used another gene called bar from Streptomyces hygroscopicus bacteria,” said Pental. The bar gene provides resistance to Glufosinate ammonium, a herbicide that keeps weeds in check.

This insertion of foreign genetic materials in plant crops makes some wary of their possible risks. The Coalition for a GM-Free India has therefore been opposing DMH-11 since Pental approached GEAC for the first time in 2015 for approval.

Contentious start

The approval for DMH-11 has had a long and contentious history, even though it was funded by the Department of Biotechnology and the National Dairy Development Board.

In 2015, after scientists from different institutes like ICAR, the Centre for Advanced Research for Pre-clinical Toxicology at the National Institute of Nutrition and Department of Biotechnology conducted bio-safety studies on the GM mustard, Pental and his team approached GEAC requesting for environmental release of the variant under Rules 1989 (The Manufacture, Use, Import, Export and Storage of Hazardous Micro Organisms/Genetically Engineered Organisms or Cells) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.

The following year, on September 5, GEAC declared GM mustard safe for humans, animals and the environment, and gave it the go-ahead for environmental release. But a month later on October 7, the Supreme Court stayed the release after Coalition for a GM-Free India sought a moratorium on it.

In 2017, GEAC once again recommended environmental release of DMH-11, reiterating safety of the GM variant. This time it based its recommendation on the biosafety studies conducted by the Punjab Agricultural University and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute.

The Coalition for a GM-Free India, too, once again approached the Supreme Court, arguing that GEAC did not follow proper procedures while giving the go-ahead.

The apex court had then said in its July 2017 hearing that it would hear a plea challenging environmental release of GM mustard crop if the government takes a decision in favour of the rollout.

Subsequently, the government sent back the application to GEAC for re-examination “pursuant to receipt of several representations both in support and against”.

In two hearings in November 2017 and January 2018, the government told the court that it had not taken a decision on the field trials and that representation of stakeholders would be considered before taking a final decision.

However, just a few months later, on March 21, 2018, GEAC, while reviewing the representations, asked Pental and his team to undertake field demonstration of the GM mustard on 2 hectares at two to three locations to generate additional data on the impact on honey bees and other pollinators, on honey and on the soil microbial diversity.

The Coalition for a GM-Free India alleged that by giving the approval, GEAC was trying to ignore all the serious concerns with GM mustard and wrote to the Union government objecting to the review.

GEAC in its next meeting on July 25, 2018, decided to exempt Pental from studies related to soil micro-flora, saying that the studies were already completed during the bio-safety trials.

In the same meeting, GEAC also allowed the “demonstration studies” to be taken up even without a no-objection certificate (NOC) from state governments.

The Coalition for a GM-Free India had then termed the approval of GEAC without NOCs from state governments as deliberate environmental release of GM crops under the guise of demonstration studies.

However, the field studies were deferred as two committee members of GEAC expressed concerns about the use of unapproved pesticides and herbicides during the studies and due to the lack of protocols for the studies.

The next meeting was held on September 20, 2018. By then the protocols were revised to include studies on honey bees and other pollinators. Though the protocols were not detailed, GEAC in November 2019 approved the field studies at two locations: Punjab Agriculture University, Ludhiana, and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi.

On May 10, 2022, Pental approached GEAC for the third time to reconsider environmental release of DMH-11. He was asked to make a presentation on the proposal on August 25.

As per the minutes of the meeting, accessed by DTE, Pental presented an analysis of published literature and regulatory decisions in other countries, and said these have concluded that transgenic proteins in the released crops do not pose any threat to honeybees.

He further argued that Canada, US and Australia did not impose any condition to approve the release of GM canola, developed using the bar, barnase and barstar system. Pental then submitted that no additional studies are required for DMH-11.

The GEAC constituted a nine-member expert committee, under the chairmanship of Sanjay Kr Mishra, a senior scientist at DBT, for examining the claims of availability of adequate evidence. The committee submitted its report to GEAC on October 8, giving the go-ahead for environmental release.

But “to generate scientific evidences in Indian agro-climatic situation and as a precautionary mechanism”, it said the applicant should conduct demonstration studies to assess the effect of GM mustard on honeybees and other pollinators within two years of environmental release, under supervision of ICAR.

This essentially means that GEAC has given environmental clearance to e GM mustard without properly addressing one of the major environmental concerns.

“It is quite objectionable that the regulatory body prescribes some studies, which the applicant repeatedly refuses to conduct, and GEAC takes back its own recommendations, repeatedly,” the Coalition of a GM-Free India stated in a letter to Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav on October 20.

The coalition, over the years, has pointed out that crop developers have been part of various expert committees set up by GEAC for approval of the GM mustard. “This leads to a situation where the applicants are waved in without serious, critical review of applications,” it stated.

For instance, the nine-member expert committee was chaired by Sanjay Kumar Mishra from DBT, which has funded development of the GM mustard. KC Bansal is also a GM crop developer and his participation in GEAC decision-making in the past has raised resistance.

On November 2, the coalition knocked on the door of the Supreme Court reminding it of the July 2017 order that said the petitioner should come back to it once the government gives approval to the GM mustard.

The apex court on November 3, granted time till November 10 (this magazine went to press on November 7) to the Union government to respond to the petition.

Reacting to the order, Pental told DTE: “The court has issued a status quo that has put the development on hold. It has always sided with the anti-GM lobby. However, a case will be made in the next hearing where the facts of the matter will be presented to convince the court that all protocols and tests have been followed with due diligence.”

Seeds of trouble

Kavitha Kuruganti, founder of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), an alliance of organisations working to improve farm livelihoods, told DTE that the court verbally asked the Centre thrice to not go for further planting GM mustard and conducting field trials and demonstrations.

“The government agencies have flouted at many levels including on understanding the effect of GM mustard on honeybees and other pollinators and have bypassed bio-safety protocols,” she said. Kuruganti, who is also associated with the Coalition of a GM-Free India, said the group would continue to protest against the move.

Notwithstanding the uncertainty over the approval of the GM mustard, beekeepers on November 4 took to the streets against it.

Over 100 beekeepers from Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana gathered at the ICAR-Mustard Research Institute in Bharatpur to demand withdrawal of the environmental clearance for GM mustard.

“The introduction of hybrid seed varieties and Bt cotton has already affected the bees and honey production. Their population will collapse if GM mustard is introduced,” said Tanzeem Ansari, chairperson of Natural Resource Development Multistate Co-operative Society Limited (NARCO), a honeybee farmers’ association based in Sahranpur, Uttar Pradesh, who participated in the protest.

Earlier, farmers used to rely on sunflower, cotton, sorghum (jowar), pearl millet (bajra), corn, sesame, pigeon pea (tur) and chana crops for rearing honeybees and used to harvest honey for eight months in a year.

“Today, mustard is the only natural crop that bee farmers depend on. Hybrid crops have already resulted in fewer flowering days, reducing honey harvesting season to less than three months a year and affecting production,” Ansari added.

Praveen Sharma, director of NARCO, told DTE the GM mustard, if introduced, will cause further drop in honey production. Sharing his experience with Bt cotton, Sharma said, “During the initial years, we harvested honey twice a season. Over the years, the flowers stopped yielding nectar.”

Honey exporters fear that the introduction of DMH-11 will sound the death knell for their business.

“Those targeting markets overseas entirely depend on bees feeding on the nectar of mustard flowers,” said Sunil Kr Gupta, an exporter of honey from Bharatpur.

Mustard honey crystallises quickly and makes exporting to the US and EU feasible. But these countries also demand GM-free certification.

Amit Dhanuka, another honey exporter, said almost half of the 150,000 tonnes honey produced in India is exported under non-GMO verification programme. Both Gupta and Dhanuka said the future of apiculture export will be threatened if GM mustard receives commercial approval.

Spreading fears

Despite top government scientists assuring that the GM mustard does not pose any threat to honeybees, other pollinators and soil microbes, some scientists are doubtful.

A Pune-based botanist on the condition of anonymity told DTE that pests and insects may grow resistant to the transgenic crop after a decade or so, triggering the need for newer versions of the seeds.

Besides, through pollination, honeybees could transfer the genes of GM mustard to other plants. “This may lead to horizontal and undesirable gene transfer among plants, affecting the biodiversity and causing the growth of unwanted and invasive weeds,” said the botanist.

Partibha Basu, director, Centre for Pollination Studies, at the University of Calcutta, also expressed a similar fear. “What if the male sterile pollen gets transferred during cross pollination? This will affect the biodiversity at large,” Basu said.

Kuruganti pointed out that since the GM mustard is a herbicide-tolerant crop, its parental lines also require approval for environmental release.

Kapil Shah, from ASHA-Kisan Swaraj, a network of farmers’ organisations, said release of these lines is not required to continue research. But they have been released to ICAR institutions for creating offsprings without testing.

Shah said even if the seed development is kept in hands of only “technical people”, the parental lines will definitely escape into the hands of farmers and money-makers by illegal routes.

“This has happened with Bt cotton. In 2016, we wrote to GEAC on our concerns. None of those have been addressed,” Shah said.

However, during a media briefing on October 31, the officials present claimed that GM mustard is not released as an herbicide tolerant crop. Bansal explained, “The herbicide in question will only be required for hybrid seed production.”

PK Rai, director of DRMR said: “The bar gene used to develop DMH-11 is purely a marker or indicator of the seed. Once the hybrid process is performed, scientists or developers need to be sure if the seed formed is genetically modified.

“The herbicide under question glufosanite ammonium will be sprayed on the final hybrid seed formed. If the seed is GM and hybrid, it will survive. However, if the hybrid is not successfully formed, the seed will die due to the herbicides. For a GM crop, it should not be more than 15 per cent of losses.”

Satvinder Kaur Mann, retired plant pathologist in Punjab, countered the claim. She said the herbicide resistance trait will come to the final seed which will be used by the farmers. “Releasing this as a non-herbicide tolerant crop will lead to misappropriate use of herbicides in fields and the subsequent ecological and health impacts,” Mann added.

Basu questioned the very use of the technology itself. “There is no long-term study in Indian context on the metabolic impact of barstar and barnase genes on human and animal body. The reasons given by government officials are unconvincing,” she told DTE and called for the need of an independent and neutral study on GM mustard.

Kuruganti said concealed data so far on the health safety front shows significant differences in compositional analyses between GM and non-GM counterparts.

“These were brushed aside and attributed to agro-climatic changes, which should not have been allowed in the first instance in any rigorous experiment. Based on falsely-established-equivalence, several other tests have not been carried out on GM mustard. Sub-chronic toxicity studies reveal statistically significant differences in biochemistry parameters, histo-pathological differences and bodyweight gains. However, these were brushed aside too,” she alleged.

Refuting the allegations, Bansal said, “The methods for approval followed are equivalent to what are practiced in western countries or implemented to approve GM Mustard in the US and Canada. There is no safety issue with them.”

Need long-term studies

In 2009, GEAC gave approval for environmental release of another GM food crop — Bt brinjal.

But the Centre imposed a moratorium on its field trials after a technical expert committee appointed by the Supreme Court in October 2012 recommended a 10-year moratorium on field trials of all GM food crops and a total ban on herbicide-tolerant crops. It had raised concerns about the toxic elements in GM food crops that may enter human body.

There is no dearth of studies establishing health and environmental concerns associated with GM crops. In November 2009, four German researchers published an article Degradation of Cry1Ab protein from genetically modified maize (MON810) in relation to total dietary feed proteins in dairy cow digestion in Springer Open Choice, which said the protein in Bt brinjal was toxic for all organisms.

In another study, published by academic publishing company Elsevier in 2011, researchers from the University of Sherbrooke Hospital Centre in Canada, analysed maternal and fetal exposure to pesticides associated with GM foods. They found Bt toxin in blood circulating foetuses.

In December 2016, Keshav Kranthi, former director of Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), Nagpur, wrote an article Fertilizers Gave High Yields Bt Only Provided Cover, which was published on CICR’s website.

He noted that from 2008 onwards Bt cotton yield has stagnated to 500 kg per ha. But Bollard II, a pest against which the GM variety was supposed to be resistant, was already present in the crop.

A GM Mirage

The major motivation for approving DMH-11 was to significantly increase the mustard yield. According to ICAR, DMH-11 will have an average yield advantage of 28 per cent over its parent, Varuna.

However, Devinder Sharma, agriculture and food policy analyst, said the comparison is not fair as Varuna is a low yielding variety. Questioning the need for a GM mustard, Sharma said, India already has non-GM hybrid varieties that provide yields up to 3,200 kg per ha.

When grown using the System of Mustard Intensification method, the yield goes up to 4,200 kg. So the efforts of the scientists should be to promote such varieties and system, not to go after GM.

Ashwani Mahajan, co-convener of Swadeshi Jagran Manch, a political and cultural organisation focusing on economic issues, also pooh-poohs the claim that GM mustard will reduce India’s import dependency. He said, “The GM mustard does not have any exceptional advantages over indigenous hybrids as is evident from the data obtained from the Directorate of Rapeseed Mustard Research.”

Dheeraj Singh, former director of DRMR, who has researched on mustard crop for over 40 years, said the yield of any crop depends on its genotype, environment and management, with the latter playing around 80 per cent of the role.

The hybrid crops may show 4-5 per cent superiority, but they are not highly superior. Singh further explained that the yield of the traditional mustard crop in the last 40 years has increased by over 300 per cent from 478 kg to 2 tonnes per hectare.

Data available with the Union government think tank NITI Aayog shows that in the six years between 2014-15 and 2019-20 mustard oil production has increased from 6.28 million tonnes to 9.12 million tonnes.

In 2021-22 the Centre implemented the Special Mustard Mission to further increase the area under mustard by 20 per cent and production by 15 per cent.

The oilseed production in India doubled from around 11 million tonnes to 22 million tonnes in the 1990s after the launch of oilseed technology mission in 1980s. “This was termed as yellow revolution. India was the net exporter that time. The turnaround happened without any GM crop,” said Sharma.

India became an importer from exporter after a significant reduction in import duties which then led to cheaper imports into India and a subsequent heavy reliance on imports.

A senior government official associated with the testing of GM mustard, also admitted that India does not face mustard oil crisis. On the contrary, its production has consistently increased over the past few years, and the growth has been achieved with existing seed varieties.

Questioning the need for GM mustard, the official said DMH-11 may not pass the field tests required for commercial approval. Primary tests show that it does not deliver the yield as promised by the developers. Comparing GM mustard with other high yielding varieties scientifically will further reveal its poor performance.

The official, however, warned that GM mustard, if it gets a final approval, can open doors for approvals of other GM food crops that are in different stages of development in the country.

Just in September this year, the government cleared a proposal to conduct confined field trials of herbicide-tolerant GM cotton and maize seeds at two agricultural sciences universities in Karnataka.

In 2020, GEAC and MoEFCC allowed bio-safety research field trials of two transgenic varieties of indigenously developed Bt brinjal by 2023 in eight states. But not much appears to be happening to establish the long-term safety and profitability of these transgenic varieties.

Road to clearance

In the past seven years, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee of the Union environment ministry has thrice cleared GM mustard for environmental release

2002
Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants, University of Delhi, develops GM mustard

2008 - 2015
Biosafety studies, along with studies on honeybees were conducted

September 2015
Delhi University geniticist Deepak Pental, whose team developed GM mustard, approaches Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) under the Union environment ministry for environmental release of GM mustard

September 2016
GEAC declares GM mustard safe for humans, animals and the environment

October 2016
Supreme Court stays the commercial release of GM mustard

May 2017
GEAC again gives clearance, sends application to Union environment ministry for approval

July 2017
Anti-GM activists approach the Supreme Court again, which says it will hear the plea if the government approves the roll-out

September 2017
The government sends the application to GEAC for re-examination

November 2017
The government tells the court it has not taken a decision and it will consider representation of all stakeholders before final decision

March 2018
GEAC asks the applicant to undertake field demonstrations to generate data on honeybees and other pollinators

July 2018
GEAC exempts the applicant from studies related to soil microflora, saying these were conducted at the biosafety trial stage. In the same meeting, two members of the review committee raise concerns about use of unapproved pesticides/herbicides during the demonstration studies. Demonstration studies put on hold

September 2018
GEAC approves field demonstrations, saying protocols for the same were revised; minutes of the meeting do not elaborate on these revisions.

May 2022
Pental submits letter to GEAC requesting to reconsider the environmental release, without any mention of studies done on honeybees

August 2022
Pental submits analysis of global studies on the issue, saying GM mustard does not pose any threat to honeybees and no additional studies are required

September 2022
GEAC examines Pental’s claims

October 2022
GEAC again agrees to GM mustard’s environmental release

November 2022
Anti-GM activists move the Supreme Court against the environmental release of GM mustard

INFOGRAPHICS: SANJIT / CSE

This was first published in the 16-30 November, 2022 print edition of Down To Earth

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