India pushes GM’s frontier again with mustard, but what’s inside it?

  • Zia Haq, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Oct 24, 2016 18:31 IST
The environment ministry’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) has begun examining final biosafety data related to GM mustard

In Bollywood romcoms, mustard fields glowing iridescent yellow are an oft-used backdrop for romantic songs. Remember the iconic 1995 hit, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. Mustard, as it were, is an onscreen metaphor for vigour and youthful passion.

However, looked through a farm scientist’s lens, the traditional Indian mustard isn’t genetically very impressive. It is only half as robustly growing as its east European cousins. Low yields mean India has to import millions of dollars’ worth of cooking oil each year.

Mustard is to India what olives are to Mediterranean countries. A condiment and cooking oil, mustard has been pressed in India for 4,000 years through bullock-powered “mortar-and-pestle” pressers commonly called the ghani, according to KT Acharya, who formerly served on the WHO Expert Consultation on Fats and Oils team. Although machine-powered oil processors are far more economical, edible oil brands still call their stuff kachchi ghani.

India is the world’s largest buyer of edible oil and meets 60% of its annual demand of 18-19 million tonnes through imports. This costs up to Rs 62,000 crore, nearly three times the budget for Sarva Sikshya Abhiyan, the country’s flagship primary education programme.

A public-sector developed genetically-modified (GM) mustard, now going through the regulatory process, looks promising. Developed by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants of Delhi University, mustard DMH-11, as it is called, is a testimony to homegrown scientific prowess.

Chief scientist Deepak Pental, a professor of genetics and the university’s former vice-chancellor, says his product will be given free to farmers since it is publicly funded, compared to exorbitantly priced seeds from private companies. Yet, GM mustard will have no easy ride.

In fact, the spat over GM foods is poised to turn into a raging national debate again. Five years ago, a massive opposition to Bt brinjal, India’s first GM food, led to a ban by previous government. The decision came just days after the environment ministry’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, the biotech regulator, had cleared it for commercial cultivation.

Although everyone agrees India needs technological leaps in agriculture, GM technologies are fiercely resisted, amid fears that they could compromise food security, lead to seed monopolies and biosafety.

Although there is no credible evidence of adverse health effect of GM crops, seed pricing has cropped up as a major issue with Bt cotton, the only GM crop India has allowed since 2002.

A vast majority of seven million cotton farmers prefers to grow BT cotton, hailed as a yield and income booster. The country’s cotton output has jumped because of it.

A key concern of the farm ministry now is that Mahyco- Monsanto Biotech (India) Private Limited (MMBL) -- a 50:50 joint venture of US biotech giant Monsanto Company -- seems to enjoy a virtual monopoly in the BT cotton seed market. It has already sought a probe into this by the anti-trust regulator, the Competition Commission of India and issued executive orders to cap prices nationally from March.

Mustering courage?

On February 5, the GEAC sought additional clarifications on various data related to GM mustard from its developers. If the biosafety data recorded during field trials are validated, then the crop becomes technically eligible for commercial approval. So, protests by anti-GM group to halt GM mustard have gained momentum.

Not discouraged by the fate of Bt brinjal back in 2010, Pental and his team of scientists and PhD students kept working on a project funded by the department of biotechnology and the National Dairy Development Board to come up with what is known as DMH 11.

The science behind GM mustard isn’t simple, but the idea is. Pental’s group made a seminal discovery: Indian and east European high-yielding varieties match well. So the scientists wanted to infuse the traits from an east European mustard into the Indian variant by creating a hybrid.

Mustards, like many plants, are self-pollinating because its flower contains both male and female reproductive parts. To make hybrids, scientists need a parent line with male sterility. This sterility - or impotency -- can be induced through conventional methods or by genetic engineering. Getting pure seeds with conventionally methods is tough because it is just a one in a million chance.

Pental and his team then improvised on a 1990s breeding innovation pioneered in Belgium called the barnase/barster male sterility technique. Barnase and barster are genes from naturally occurring bacteria. Barnase switches on male sterility, barster switches it back off. The hybrid Pental got had the higher yields of East European mustard, of up to 25 times. The developers said his product had three genes from rapeseed that had been deregulated for consumption by Canada in 1996, by US in 2002 and Australia in 2003.

Such technological marvels can hardly convince the political opposition to mustard, which is intense.

After being initially cagey, the Prakash Javadekar-headed environmental ministry -- with backing from Prime Minister Narendra Modi -- removed an effective ban on field trials of GM crops last August.

A nod to GM mustard by the GEAC will put the Modi government in an unprecedented tight spot. Allowing it could mean fierce opposition even from within. Rejecting it could dent the prime minister’s image of being a believer of technology.

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