Professional activists, who are opposing GM mustard, are the same folks who opposed Bt brinjal in 2010 and Bt cotton in 2002. Bt cotton was developed by an MNC to control a major insect-pest of cotton, whereas Bt brinjal by an Indian company in collaboration with two agricultural universities to salvage huge losses caused by Lepidopteran insect-pests to brinjal farmers. GM mustard, on the other hand, comes from deep within publically-funded Indian university, developed by a team of Brassica scientists led by Deepak Pental, who has dedicated over 20 years to public research at Delhi University. GM mustard hybrid DMH-11 and the barnase-barstar technology will help millions of mustard farmers in India’s semi-arid regions to generate newer hybrids with potentially higher yields than current non-GM variants. Allow me to scientifically defend, with facts and figures, some of the major objections raised by activists in the last fortnight to shun 20 years of rigorous scientific experiments.
Yield increase claims of GM mustard are correct.
The allegation is that countries growing GM canola have lower yields than the countries growing conventional canola. This is grossly an inaccurate summation. The European canola types are winter types and the North American are spring—the yield potential on the winter types is much higher due to a very long 8-10 month crop, a small acreage of canola crop managed by high-tech professional farms, and also the type of agriculture is very dissimilar between Canada and Europe. Similar, small well-managed farms in Canada yield more than (average 111.3 bushel per acre) or 6236 kg per ha, almost double than those in Europe. Therefore, the yield comparison of GM technology has to be either over a period or in similar setting and agro-ecology like Canola yield in Canada between 1996 when GM canola technology was introduced with 2014 data. The yield trend is crystal clear and GM canola country Canada has shown superior yield increases than Europe. Also, all GM technologies are not the same. There are different traits approved in different countries and are different from the trait under discussion in India.
Another allegation that GM mustard hybrid DMH11 was not evaluated against the latest conventional mustard hybrids in the market.
In this case, the GM hybrid DMH-11 was bred using the high-yielding variety Varuna in 2000s to prove the barnase-barstar technology through the regulatory process. Field-evaluation carried out as per prescribed protocols by ICAR institutions and SAUs confirmed the higher level of heterosis, about 25-30%, over the parental lines, as well as over the zonal check. Therefore, the Brassica breeders throughout the country can use the GM mustard trait after it is deregulated as a ‘breeding tool’ to breed atleast 25-30% superior and high-yielding hybrids than those that exist.
The safety aspects of herbicide Glufosinate are well-studied and globally accepted
Herbicide Glufosinate is one of most used herbicides in the world for more than three decades and currently approved for use in tea gardens in India. India uses approximately 100 metric tonnes of it each year to control weeds in orchard and tea gardens. The GM mustard trait will require Glufosinate application in research farms and for seed production plots only. Herbicide Glufosinate can’t be sprayed by farmers on mustard as it is not recommended by GEAC and the Central Insecticide Board and Registration Committee (CIBRC) of the Indian government. Therefore, apprehension of its use by farmers in GM mustard is a fallacy.
Many countries have grown GM canola (Canadian mustard) and GM Crops for last two decades
As many as 28 agriculturally-rich countries grow GM crops including Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, India and the US. Those countries in Europe and Japan that do not grow GM crops are the major importers and consumers of GM food, feed and fibre. Twenty years of cultivation and consumption of GM food and feed is the best testimonials of its safety for human health and environmental sustainability. In the recent years, many African countries have engaged in field-evaluation of different crops including maize, cotton, cowpea and banana to meet the growing demand for food, feed and fibre.
Every country has its own need and interest to accept or reject GM crops. In the case of GM mustard, it meets the need and interest of our farmers and consumers as our mustard yields are very low and we depend heavily on imported edible oil, most of which is already derived from GM soybean and GM canola. If increasing mustard productivity by generating better quality hybrids and achieving 100% seed purity is a task that can be achieved through the GM trait and cannot be achieved through the traditional CMS hybrid system, why should India not adopt it? This is in the interest of our farmers, the interest of our consumer and on the top, it is our national interest as imported edible oil cost Rs75,000 crore every year to our exchequer. And just to put this on record, over 200 Indian scientists have been involved in the review of safety, efficacy and performance of GM mustard, that included biosafety studies and obtaining around 800 public comments before GEAC recommended its commercial approval to the government on May 11, 2017.
Indian regulator, GEAC has also made following notable information on GM mustard to the public:
Different GM organisms include different genes inserted in different ways. Hence, individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
It is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods. GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.
The transgenes would not get transferred to humans or animals through consumption of GM mustard. So far, there is no evidence suggesting that the transgenes could be transferred to humans or animals through consumption of GM food.
The regulatory agencies assessed thoroughly the dossier of GM mustard and evaluated critically the safety data on toxicity and allerginicity in humans and animals, and found that the introduced proteins do not have any toxicity.
The seeds of GM mustard are as safe for consumption as other conventionally grown mustard varieties in India.
GM mustard leaves are as safe for consumption as other conventionally grown mustard varieties in India.
Medicinal products containing mustard oil or leaf from this hybrid have been assessed to be as safe as other conventional mustard varieties.
The introduced Barnase and Barstar proteins of the GM mustard are expressed in specific tissue (anther) and are not found in other parts of the plant. Bar protein expressed in leaves, but is rapidly degraded during cooking. Also, the expressed proteins show rapid digestion in the human gut in the in vitro tests. Moreover, there has been more than a decade of history of safe use of these three proteins.
The compositional analysis of GM mustard shows that all the biochemical/nutritional components of GM mustard are similar to that of conventionally grown mustard varieties Therefore, GM mustard is not expected to have a change in the taste or pungency. It would be as nutritious as the conventional mustard.
Milk produced by cows after the consumption of GM mustard will not have any change in colour and nutritional value.
Oil from GM mustard contains no new proteins. Therefore, the GM mustard oil is as safe as the conventional mustard oil from the non-GM mustard variety.
Although oil derived from GM mustard is as safe as the oil from conventional varieties, people allergic to traditional mustard oil should exercise similar caution to GM mustard.
The honey bee studies have revealed that GM mustard does not affect the number of honey bees visiting GM mustard plants as compared to non-GM mustard plants.
Above assessments make it clear that detractors of GM mustard technology are opposed to genetic modification technologies for agriculture per se and do not care which source it comes from, or the importance of the crop for the farmer or the country. They have attacked the regulator in all the three cases (Bt cotton, Bt brinjal and GM mustard) and expressed their dissatisfaction with the data generated. But the same activists have no problems supporting bio-technology in the healthcare sector. Incidentally it’s important to note that the same GEAC takes decisions related to the healthcare sector. No single technology, including GM, is a silver bullet.
We should use each technology, including GM, where it gives us maximum value or where others can’t do the job. The farmer should have access to technologies and he should not be denied the choice. Similarly, public should be informed and educated on GM mustard and other GM crops and not to be misled with a sheer activists propaganda. Let us promote science, not fear!