KV Prabhu, joint director (research) at Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), Delhi, is a well-known plant breeder. He has contributed to the development of 23 varieties of rice, wheat, mustard and barley, including popular ones like Pusa Basmati 1121 and 1509 and HD 3086 (wheat). In an interview with Vivian Fernandes, Prabhu talks about the safety and utility of a technology deployed by a team of Delhi University (DU) scientists to create mustard hybrid DMH-11. It uses a foreign gene, barnase, to create male sterility in largely open pollinating mustard, and another foreign gene, barstar, to restore fertility after cross pollination of an Indian mustard variety with an east European one.
It was in 2015, that the DU team applied for permission to cultivate DMH-11 in farmers’ fields. It has missed the 2016 rabi planting season. In its summary put out for public reading, the sub-committee of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee said the hybrid was safe. The environment minister has told the Lok Sabha that the hybrid has “adequately addressed” safety concerns. But approval for commercial cultivation is not in sight.
It was good that the dossier was put on the environment ministry’s website for public knowledge. A good number of people reacted to it; almost 800 from different walks of life. The heartening point is that a large proportion—more than 85%—were able to understand its goodness and suggested we must try it out.
Does the display of a summary of the bio-safety risk assessment dossier, in your view, meet the standards of transparency?
Oh, yes! The document deals with every point that was contended and gives clarifications.
Have we followed the world’s best practices in this aspect?
Yes. To the best of our knowledge, the trials were conducted as recommended.
Those who are suggesting precaution say there are other non-transgenic ways of creating mustard hybrids like cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS). So, what is the need for transgenic barnase-barstar system?
Barnase-barstar system enables perfect hybrid development. In CMS-based hybrids, we need a male sterility line, a sterility maintainer line and a fertility restorer line. Grain-setting to 100% levels are not likely to happen. The maintainer line takes a minimum of five years to develop. Which means you need be lucky to get big margins of hybrid heterosis (hybrid vigour) in order to sustain. Every time a new hybrid combination is developed, you need to convert one into a male sterile parent and its maintainer, and convert the other line to posses the fertility restorer gene, keeping the rest of the parental constitution as near to the original as possible. This is very cumbersome and time-, resource- and land-intensive.
With barnase-barstar, once a parental line pair is identified as being capable of heterosis for yield, we can quickly transfer the genes using recurrent back-cross breeding method and in three years get many parental combinations converted for testing a large number of hybrids. There is a better chance of getting a superior hybrid.
Those who are not convinced about DMH-11 say the yield is not as high as claimed. Hypothetically assuming this is so, would you still go ahead with it, because the advocates say better hybrids can be created with better parental lines, once the system is approved? We need approval for the transgenic barstar-barnase hybridisation technology first before high yielding hybrids are created.
You have scored full points on this. As a plant-breeder, I see it this way only. It is the same case in every successful hybrid whether it is single-cross maize or sorghum, pearl millet or rice. Even there the first set of hybrids had hardly 7-8% yield increment. But the system was understood as having potential. Once the hybrid seed production system was established, you developed more parental combinations and tried to identify the best among them. That exercise has never been done with DMH-11 as of now. We are still in infancy. I believe the systems functionality is without doubt perfect.
What about safety to humans, animals and the environment?
All the safety issues have been taken care of. The question of herbicide tolerance is not going to be a problem in mustard because it is not going to cater to any weed that is going to be controlled by the bar gene or by Basta herbicide. (DMH-11 has the bar gene which makes it herbicide tolerant. This gene has been inserted for selection of transgenic mutants: when sprayed, only genetically-engineered ones will survive).
Because Basta is not a recommended herbicide in India. It is not used in normal agricultural practices.
Even those who support transgenics fear MNCs will end up controlling India’s agriculture because they have an edge in this field of science.
I do not bother about this MNC versus nationalist stuff. It is a trade game as in every other product and commodity. It should be in agriculture too, just as Samsung and iPhone are acceptable in competition with Micromax and other Indian brands. I take it as a challenge. As far as rice and wheat breeding is concerned, we will not only give MNCs a tough fight, we will win. We must take up the challenge here, too. If they are allowed to come in, we must accept their superiority if indeed they are superior.
Or do not allow them in at all. Once you have allowed them to operate in India, we must forget they are MNCs. They have come in and are serving the country. They have to survive in the market. They can’t monopolise and do what they wish and still survive. The farmer is the boss. No farmer will buy something that will not give her economic yield. You can’t fool the farmer more than once. We must respect the wisdom and knowledge gained by farmers through their own experience. Their decision is final, multinational or no multinational.
Is IARI using this technology to address problems that cannot be conventionally dealt with?
We have identified 13 priority crops out of 35. In those priority crops we want traits that cannot be bred through conventional methods.
You might also want to see this:
For brown plant hopper and yellow stem borer in paddy, spot blotch in wheat and pod borer in chickpea (chana) and pigeonpea (tur), we have no option but to look for this. In brinjal, for fruit and stem borer, we have no resistance in any of the native evolved materials. People who cultivate brinjal will know. Those who say on the streets that we are causing disbalance don’t know the amount of pesticide that goes into the brinjals they purchase from the market. In my own kitchen garden, if I do not spray once every 12-15 days, the brinjal is bound to have a fruit borer inside.
Because transgenics minimise pesticide use, are you saying they are good for biodiversity?
This is a misdirected argument, biodiversity versus transgenic. There is no relationship at all. When you are handling transgenic material in a highly regulated environment, when every single packet that is sold is tracked, there is no question of biodiversity loss.
Fernandes is editor of http://www.smartindianagricuture.in