It can increase yield by a third, and put up to Rs 500 crore in farmers’ pockets. However, it is facing the same challenges that Bt brinjal did five years ago.
People who fear that genetically engineered crops are not healthy or will harm them in some way are either misguided or mischievous,” says Deepak Pental, rearranging a pile of research papers on his desk. His office is at the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP) which stands amid the lush green lawns of the South Campus of Delhi University (DU). The CGMCP is part of the department of genetics of the premier university. It undertakes research on genetic engineering and molecular breeding of oilseed brassica crops (brassica is a genus of plants in the mustard family).
Pental, along with five other scientists – Pradeep Burma, Akshay Kumar Pradhan, Vibha Gupta, YS Sodhi and Arundhati Mukhopadhyay – supervised a sub-team of three PhD students and they have developed the Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11), popularly known as genetically modified mustard (GM mustard). If it delivers what it promises, up to one-third higher yield, it can be a shot in the arm for India’s food security.
“Our farmers have been modifying their crops for centuries through the method of conventional breeding. But here we have not modified but *genetically engineered* the mustard parental lines and hybrid in a manner which gives a 20-30% higher yield compared to non-GM mustard. So, it’s better to call it ‘GE mustard’ rather than ‘GM mustard’,” explains Pental, a former vice chancellor of DU and internationally renowned scientist.
To understand the significance of Pental’s work, it would help to look at some historical background.
Edible oils are to the Indian kitchen what computers are to modern offices. India witnessed an alarming edible oil scenario during the early 1980s due to low productivity and heavy outflow of foreign exchange for edible oil imports. When prime minister Rajiv Gandhi set up a National Technology Mission in May 1986, one of the tasks assigned to it was to figure out a way to attain high output with low input in agriculture. Such a multiplier effect was not possible without some out-of-box idea which could come only from technology. Thus began the era of a technological revolution.
Parallel to these developments, Pental, who had completed his PhD from Rutgers University of the US in 1978 and pursued his postdoctoral research at the University of Nottingham, UK, till ‘84, returned to India. He joined the Tata Energy Research Institute (TERI, now renamed The Energy and Resource Institute) in 1985, to develop a mustard hybrid that would deliver higher yields to the farmer. “Initially the idea was to increase the mustard yield by developing hybrids, because hybrids are more productive. However, we didn’t get desired results by conventional breeding. There was not much difference in the yield. That’s when we decided to do its genetic engineering. The aim was to strengthen our agriculture by means of science,” he says.
In scientific terms, genetic engineering (GE) of crop plants is a process that modifies the plant’s genetic material to give desired traits. Hybrids are defined as an offspring of two plants of same or different species. GE mustard consists of three bacterial genes, namely barnase, barstar and bar. The concept of using the barnase-barstar construct for generating new hybrids is not new. It was first worked out in Belgium. Pental says that research was published in the world’s leading science journal, Nature, in two papers in 1990 and 1992. The papers concluded that it was possible to create a hybrid seed from a genetically engineered plant. Taking a cue from this research, Pental’s team at TERI performed repeated experiments which showed that Indian mustard, when crossed with East European mustard type, produced hybrids which gave a higher yield than that of the best Indian gene pool lines. The process, however, wasn’t easy and required years of hard work, patience and dedication towards the project.
Biology of Indian GE mustard hybrid
Usually, pollen from one flower of a plant has to move to a flower of another plant to generate seeds, fruits and next batch of plants. But mustard is a self-pollinating plant. In other words, pollen need not move from one plant to another, but between parts of the same plant. In self-pollination, pollen from the anther (the male part of the plant) transfers to stigma (the female part of the plant) of the same flower or from another flower of the same plant making it fit for fertilisation. To develop the mustard hybrid seed, one of the two parental lines had to be made male sterile – that is, the plant had to stop producing functional anthers, pollen, or male gametes – so that it would be forced to cross with the other line to produce a hybrid seed. Once the two parental lines were crossed, male sterility had to be restored in their hybrid progeny; otherwise no hybrid mustard seeds would be developed.
To achieve this delicate operation, an enzyme called ‘barnase’ was introduced into the Indian female parental line called Varuna bn3.6 to kill pollen grain formation in anther. Into the east European mustard called EH2 modbs2.99 was inserted another bacterial gene called ‘barstar’ which acted as an inhibitor to barnase. Barstar blocked the action of the barnase gene so that it only expressed itself in anther and not in the rest of the plant parts. Their progeny with both the barnase and barstar genes were thus expected to be male sterile hybrids.
In order to facilitate seed production so that pure male sterile lines are produced, a ‘bar’ gene was introduced along with barstar in EH2 modbs2.99. After a number of experiments and plethora of research, Pental’s team successfully developed its first mustard hybrid in 2002 which the CGMCP claims gave a 20-30% higher yield.
Pental shares that in 1993 TERI for some reason lost its interest in developing GE mustard and asked him to quit. “The work that we were doing required patience and conviction but TERI was not ready,” says the genial, soft-spoken and mild-mannered man.
He then joined the DU where he carried forward his work at the CGMCP. But the move from TERI created a shortage of funds – the kind of funding a Tata-backed research institute can provide was of course not possible at a public-funded university with several competing priorities. He wrote a letter to the Father of White Revolution in India, Verghese Kurien, seeking help. “I requested him to provide my team with an amount of Rs 4-5 crore for our work on mustard breeding. He was a visionary and risk-taking man. He could see the kind of positive impact this would lead to. He was more than willing to get this product in the market,” he says. Kurien, who founded the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB), agreed to support the project. Apart from NDDB with its mandate to help farmers, long-term sustenance came from the department of biotechnology (DBT), under the ministry of science and technology, that is responsible for development and commercialisation in the field of modern biology and biotechnology in India.
Pental says that after working round-the-clock to genetically engineer mustard, its hybrid was ready in 2002. “If it had been cleared 10 years back, we would have been able to produce 50% higher yield by now rather than just 30% higher. Sadly, the government is very sluggish in this case,” he says.
The genetic engineering appraisal committee (GEAC), the biotech regulator in India under the ministry of environment and forests, permits the use of GMOs and their products for commercial applications. It is responsible for approval of proposals relating to release of genetically engineered organisms and products into the environment, including experimental field trials (BRL-I and BRL-II). On January 4 this year, it formed a sub-committee under the chairmanship of Dr K Veluthambi, co-chair of the GEAC, for safety evaluation of GE mustard.
The sub-committee as well as GEAC concluded that the mustard hybrid developed by Pental and team was safe for both human and animal health. “The results collectively demonstrate that the introduction of barnase, barstar and bar genes into GE mustard does not show any unintended effects on the overall composition of GE plants – either the parental lines or the hybrid DMH-11,” it said.
After reviewing the sub-committee’s report, titled ‘Assessment of Food and Environmental Safety (AFES) report on environmental release of Genetically Engineered Mustard’, the GEAC decided to upload the report on the website of ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) for a period of 30 days from the date of placing on the website for inviting comments from public. The comments received from stakeholders were to be examined by the sub-committee and the same would be placed before the GEAC in next meeting.
The 133-page abridged report was placed on the website from September 5 to October 5 for wider consultation. Also uploaded were excerpts from a ‘bio-safety dossier’ prepared by CGMCP – ‘Commercial Release of transgenic mustard (Brassica juncea) hybrid DMH-1 and use of the parental events for development of new generation hybrids’ – a voluminous report on safety, efficacy and agronomic performance of GE mustard.
The ministry received over 750 comments from various stakeholders, including farmers and researchers, on the report. The comments were then sent to the sub-committee to review it. Although the sub-committee has ruled that the GE mustard hybrid developed by Pental and his team is safe for human consumption, the final call on DMH 11’s commercial release is yet to be taken by the ministry.
It is a momentous decision to make, and it is a repeat of what we witnessed with BT brinjal earlier: The GEAC gave a green signal in October 2009, but after cross-country public consultations then environment minister Jairam Ramesh decided in February 2010 not to go ahead. While India has a biotech variety of cotton in use for years now, there has been no food crop that has been genetically modified or engineered. A green signal to GM mustard can set a precedent. Apart from brinjal itself, rice and chickpea may join the queue soon, as GEAC has already okayed their field trials.
According to the safety assessment data uploaded on the website of the ministry of environment, the field trials for the mustard hybrid were carried forward in two phases as BRL I and BRL II, under the overall supervision of the directorate of mustard research (DRMR) and the Indian council of agriculture research (ICAR), the premier research body in the sector, under the agriculture ministry. ICAR established the National Research Centre on Rapeseed-Mustard (NRCRM) in 1993, to carry out basic, strategic and applied research on rapeseed-mustard. In 2009, the ICAR re-designated NRCRM as the Directorate of Rapeseed Mustard Research (DRMR).
The first phase of field trials went on from 2010 to 2012 at three locations in Rajasthan and the second phase trials were conducted in New Delhi and Punjab during 2014-15. The allergenicity and toxicity assessment of the DMH 11 was done by the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad. All the tests ranging from its compositional analysis to the soil microflora assessment were carried out with much precision.
Notwithstanding the positive report of the sub-committee, activists are not convinced. The anti-GM platform is a bit of rainbow coalition – different activists are opposed to different aspects of biotechnology, ranging from intellectual property rights issues involved to what they see as predatory nature of multinationals, the swadeshi vs foreign angle and, of course, the nature-must-not-be-messed-with camp. The acrimonious exchanges between them and the scientists, corporations and administrators are often more heated that the usual political left vs right debates. (In fact, the left and the right are on the one and the same side here.)
One of them, Aruna Rodrigues, through a writ petition before the supreme court in September, has demanded a stop to any GM crop, and the setting up of an independent regulatory body to conduct safety tests against possible risk to humans as well as natural biodiversity of the nation. She started off more than a decade ago, and it took her two years to gather sufficient data to file the case, in 2005. This year, the apex court on October 7 stayed the commercial release, and began hearings on October 24. In the first hearing, the centre assured the court that it would not release GE mustard seeds without its nod. The case will be heard next on November 14.
Lack of transparency
Advocate Prashant Bhushan, who is appearing for Rodrigues, says that one of the major concerns that have been mentioned in the plea is that the full dossier on DMH 11 has not been made available on public domain. “Only a summary report has been uploaded on the website of the ministry of environment. There is no transparency,” he says.
Suman Sahai, activist and founder of Gene Campaign, claims that a period of 30 days to review the data is a betrayal of citizen’s democratic rights. Sahai has had a distinguished scientific career in the field of genetics, and is a recipient of the Padma Shri, the Borlaug Award and the Birbal Sahni Gold Medal among other honours. “This is the height of manipulation. In this case you can see the government’s intentions are not right. They gave a 30-day window for a country as large as India and then they say that people who want to access full data should personally come down to the GEAC office in New Delhi. How ridiculous is that?” she asks.
She claims that 10 years ago she had asked the government for safety data on Bt brinjal. “But the government turned around and said that this data cannot be made available to you. This time they are playing smart by making only a summary report on GE mustard available online. Why can’t they upload the full dossier? They have made the system so complicated,” says Sahai.
Sahai says the government should have taken farmers to the fields where the tests on mustard hybrid were being conducted. She says the anti-GM activists believe the GEAC is riddled with conflict of interest. “Why should I believe the GEAC? There is absolutely no transparency. You smell a rat if you go deeper into this,” she says.
Pushpa M Bhargava, a supreme court nominee on the GEAC and prominent scientist, said, “If GE mustard is cleared for cultivation, it would be a disaster for the nation. The US multinationals and their government are trying to take control of Indian agriculture, and GE mustard is a part of their plan. Food business will no longer be our business, we will become slaves. “Also, three out of the seven members of the sub-committee have conflict of interest. One of them did not even attend any of the meetings. There are enormous numbers of loopholes on every page of the sub-committee report. I have submitted those queries in my comments to the GEAC.” He has also shared his concerns over alleged irregularities in an article in the Economic and Political Weekly dated November 5.
There are many who also argue that an effective liability law should be in place before giving a go-ahead to GM crops so that culprits can be held responsible if anything goes wrong.
Ashwani Mahajan, national co-convener of Swadeshi Jagaran Manch – a platform campaigning for indigenous economy affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), asks, “If this hybrid has a negative impact on human health, what is the guarantee that Pental and his team will be held accountable? Thousands will die and nothing will be done. This is all a big conspiracy by Monsanto and Bayer. India needs to build a law which can hold such people liable for their actions.”
Monsanto is an American multinational agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation, and Bayer is a German multinational chemical and pharmaceutical company. Though GM mustard is of course developed by DU, which is not a multinational and very much funded by the government itself, Mahajan maintains that the mustard hybrid is not swadeshi. He claims that the patent over genes barstar and barnase used in making the hybrid belongs to Bayer. “GE mustard [development] is promoting foreign interests,” he says.
The Manch, with its RSS backing, is going counter to the government’s perceived pro-GM inclinations. It has organised a number of protests and roundtable conferences on the subject but is yet to take the legal route. “We may file a petition. So far, we haven’t. As of now, we are trying to put up a fight along just like Ms Rodrigues.”
Pental clarifies that the barnase-barstar construct used in the hybrid has been modified by his team and that they hold a patent on these modifications. Akshay Kumar Pradhan, Pental’s colleague who led the team of scientists working on the bar-barnase-barstar construct, breaks into a sarcastic laugh on hearing Mahajan’s claims. “There was a patent on the barnase-barstar construct and this technology was sold to Canada but their patent period is over now. We isolated this gene on the bacteria and did it in our labs. We have explained how we made it. We modified the construct. The information is easily accessible, they can check,” he says.
Unsatisfactory field trials
Rodrigues’s petition claims that the development of GM mustard is itself in contempt of what the court had ordered much earlier. It says, “The history of HT mustard DMH11 in this Hon’ble court dates from 2006 when petitioners prior in 2005 won an interim injunction on open field trials and Dr Pental requested ‘exceptional’ status to field-test HT mustard DMH 11 in small-scale open field trials for non-commercial purposes. This claim was challenged then and is now proven false as these same field trials are part of the record for regulatory approval of HT DMH 11. The Respondents and Prof Pental committed perjury. The permission came with a rider: Dr Pental would uproot the trials before the ‘flowering’ stage (to avoid risk of contamination, which is the outstanding issue). Yet, 10 years later, India has been subjected to large-scale field trials of HT DMH 11 to produce seed for commercial planting, greatly increasing the risk of contamination.”
Rodrigues has claimed that there was a huge possibility of contamination when Pental carried out large-scale field trials in BRL II stage. She has also alleged that the field trials were being carried out without conducting relevant tests.
Pental says DMH 11 has “minimal” risk of contamination. “There is no risk when a farmer is educated. Contamination can only take place if pollen spreads from DMH 11 to another crop. For example, if on one field I have grown DMH 11 and on the adjacent field I have grown some other crop, then I am supposed to take the seed from the centre of the field and not from the area that adjoins the two fields. That way there is only 0.0001% chance of contamination.” He also claims that the tests conducted have shown that pollen cannot spread beyond 20 metres.
Herbicide tolerant or not?
Herbicides are chemicals used by farmers to kill weeds. Rodrigues, in her plea, has pointed out that the bar gene introduced in DMH 11 is a herbicide tolerant gene. The gene makes the hybrid tolerant to herbicide Basta (a commercial name of a Bayer product). Basta has an element called glufosinate (also known as phosphinothricin). It is this element that works on weed control. “The bar gene is used for herbicide tolerant (HT) crops and these HT crops are found to be very harmful,” says Bhushan.
According to Mahajan of the Manch, herbicide tolerant plants lead to excessive use of toxic chemicals on plants. This in turn affects the environment as well as the human and animal health. He claims that herbicide tolerant crops were banned by the apex court in 2013 because they lead to cancer, and thus commercially releasing DMH 11 would be highly dangerous. “Pental’s team was earlier claiming that their hybrid is a herbicide resistant crop. After we poked them and got deeper into the analysis, they said that it’s a herbicide tolerant crop. They are themselves confused because they are lying,” says Mahajan.
Discussing Rodrigues’s plea, Bhushan says that a technical expert committee (TEC) appointed by the supreme court had in 2012 said that the entire regulatory system was in a shambles and there should be a 10-year moratorium on GM. While five members of the committee submitted a unanimous report, the sixth member, RS Paroda, disagreed and submitted a separate report to the court. “The SC-appointed TEC committee had already recommended that herbicide tolerant crops should not be allowed in India. This is a contempt of court,” says Bhushan.
Pental rubbishes all the claims and explains the role of bar gene in DMH 11. “The bar gene is introduced only in hybrid seed production plots. It is there only to make pure male sterile line and facilitate seed production. So the farmer need not spray any herbicide for higher yield,” he says.
He believes the anti-GM critics are confused because of the name ‘Basta’. “Since Basta is a name given by Bayer, people assume that we have made this hybrid seed so that Bayer can sell it, but the fact is that a lot of people are already making this herbicide and it is out of patent now,” he says.
Pental says that the usage of herbicides is much more in the western countries because in India, farmers cannot afford these expensive herbicides. “Farmers will have no use of any herbicide in this crop. That gene is used only to facilitate the seed production,” he says.
No yield difference?
Rodrigues’ PIL claims that in 2002 Bayer had applied for commercial approval for exactly the same bar-barnase-barstar construct that Pental and his team have used in DMH-11. The company had then claimed a 20% higher yield. But the claim was rejected by the ICAR, as its said that its field trials did not give evidence of superior yield. The plea brings to the court’s notice the claim that 14 years later, DMH 11 with the same construct – and now without proper field trials and fraudulent data – is being considered for commercial release.
Taking Rodrigues’s side, Krishna Bir Chaudhry, a farmer and president of the Bharatiya Krishak Samaj, claims that the non-GM varieties of mustard like Urvashi, Rohini and RH-749 produce more than 30 quintal per hectare – at par with GM mustard. “Pental has compared his product to old varieties of mustard. Today we have five mustard varieties that give just as good yield as he is claiming,” he says.
That, according to Pental, is scientifically impossible. “If the farmers are claiming specific varieties are giving higher yield than that of the hybrid, they can approach the Directorate of Rapeseed-Mustard Research (DRMR) and conduct multi-field trials,” he says.
Hybrids yield more due to the phenomenon of heterosis (improved function of any biological quality in a hybrid offspring) that enables the plants to perform better under field conditions.
To test a hybrid’s higher yield, multi-location trials are conducted. According to the summary report CGMCP submitted to GEAC, DMH-11 was compared to Varuna bn3.6, Varuna parent, EH 2 modbs 2.99, EH-2 parent under national checks and RL-1359 in zonal checks. The field trials were undertaken by the DRMR under the All India Coordinated Research Project on Rapeseed Mustard (AICRPRM) from 2003 to 2007.
The three genes, bar, barnase and barstar, have been tested extensively in different countries and found to be safe. Canada, USA and Australia grow hybrids of rapeseed (a member of the mustard family) developed with this technology. According to the safety assessment report of the GEAC, Canada was the first country in 1996 to allow environmental release of lines containing the barnase-bartsar and bar genes for commercial hybrid seed production. Since the release of the technology, Canada has increased productivity of the crop and has emerged as the biggest exporter of rapeseed oil to Japan, China, Hong Kong and many other countries including India.
Fear of monopoly
The anti-GM faction strongly believes that commercialisation of mustard hybrid will only ensure profits for multinationals that will eventually call the shots in India’s agriculture.
BT cotton, developed in 2002 by Monsanto, indeed delivered bumper harvests and brought about a dramatic transformation in cotton production in India. However, the cottonseed price fixed by the company has constantly gone up. Monsanto had its patent over the technology pertaining to Bollgard-II in India. According to the Indian IP laws, while the technology can be patented, seeds and plants or plant parts cannot be patented. M Prabhakar Rao, president, National Seed Association of India (NSAI), explains that Monsanto’s patents on Bt cotton genes and methods of transformation of cotton do not have any claims directed on seeds, plants or parts thereof. The patent aspect might be open to debate, but many farmers incurred a huge debt to buy donor BT cottonseeds – which cannot be reused and have to bought afresh every season. This along with licensing agreement with the local seed companies gave Monsanto a monopoly over cottonseeds in India.
Anti-GM activists fear the repeat of the same story, multinationals’ monopoly, in GE mustard. Since they maintain that Bayer holds the patent for the barnase-barstar construct used in mustard hybrid, the situation becomes all the more complex. “All we farmers need is food security and the whole game is based on that only. According to the Protection of Plant Varieties & Farmers’ Rights Authority (PPVFR, set up under a 2001 law), no patent can be claimed on any seed or plant but Monsanto wrongfully claimed a patent on Bt cotton seeds. They kept making a fool of the farmer and with GE mustard they [the multinationals] are trying to do the same. It’s a conspiracy by foreign countries to get in our Indian food security system,” says Chaudhary.
In his defence, Pental says that the fear of a monopolistic seed company dominating the Indian market does not apply in case of mustard hybrid and that the comparison of DMH 11 to BT cotton is absurd. “In case of BT cotton, a lot of stakeholders’ money was on stake which they had to level by increasing the price of its seeds. But DMH 11 is a swadeshi product. The fear of monopoly is just being created by some troublemakers,” he says.
His colleague Pradhan adds that the argument that commercial cultivation of GM mustard seeds would make farmers fall prey to a technology patented by MNCs doesn’t hold any ground as the patent has long expired. “It was the bar gene whose patent was with Bayer but it doesn’t exist anymore. These people are simply feeding wrong information to others. Delaying the release is only affecting our development,” he says.
Both Pental and Pradhan say that IPR is not an issue to give much priority in this case. “It is for the people. It depends if you want to claim the IPR. If someone wants to, then there are already many stakeholders like the department of biotechnology and the NDDB. IPR is not really an issue here,” says Pradhan.
Pental says that once commercial cultivation of GE mustard is allowed, it will be made available to both public and private sectors. “The market will compete. It will depend on who is going to make the best hybrid. The one who makes the best hybrid will have the right to decide the cost along with NDDB and DBT,” he says.
Activists are not buying the argument and smell nothing less than a conspiracy. In this context, Sahai says that it is important to shape up the IPR regime in India for farmers’ welfare. Mahajan agrees and says that there is not much clarity on who is going to own the IPR on DMH 11. “This is probably a well-planned move by Monsanto and Bayer. I am pretty sure some of our Indian scientists who are working on this issue are with them in this conspiracy,” he says.
(The article appears in November 16-30, 2016 edition of Governance Now)