GM Mustard: CM Nitish Kumar letter to PM Narendra Modi has quite a few slips

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New Delhi | Published: October 17, 2016 6:13:24 AM

Kumar says transgenic technology is ‘hazardous’, but that is not the view most scientists hold

Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar, has inveighed against genetically-modified (GM) mustard. In a letter to the PM dated October 6, and published by the state’s press information bureau, he has ‘strongly urged’ that the application for release of the hybrid cleared by a sub-committee of GEAC and the agri-biotechnology regulator, be ‘over-ruled instantaneously.’ Kumar has bought into the assertions of anti-GM activists, so here is an attempt to address the other side of the argument.

The CM doubts that Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11), developed by a team of Delhi University scientists, is a public sector product even though it was funded by the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) and the department of biotechnology. The team, AK Pradhan, YS Sodhi, Arundhati Mukkopadhyay and Vibha Gupta, was put together by Deepak Pental after his return from the University of Nottingham in 1985. The work was initiated at Tata Energy Research Institute, as it was called until 2003. The team migrated to DU, when Pental left TERI and was joined by another member—PK Burma. Pental sought financial support from NDDB and the then chairman, Verghese Kurien, took deep interest and, from 1996 onwards, provided steadfast support to research on mustard breeding. The team has worked for almost 30 years during which they developed non-GM mustard hybrids like DMH-1 and DMH-4 and published extensive work on mapping of quality traits and agronomically important quantitative traits using molecular markers.

In calling for rejection for release of GM mustard, there seems to be some impatience with a procedure established by law. One needs to consider that the GEAC had appointed a sub-committee which studied the 3,251page bio-safety data and then produced a short report, accepted by GEAC. The report pointed that the genetically engineered hybrid was alike in all respects to non-GM mustard and the proteins encoded by the three genes—bar, barnase and barstar, introduced from non-pathogenic bacteria were either non-existent or present in such traces in the edible parts of the plant as to pose no health or safety concerns. As in Australia, this abridged docket was placed on the environment ministry’s website for public comments.

The conclusions drawn by the sub-committee have angered Kumar. He says “conflict of interest plagues the decision-making system” on the basis of “some media reports.”

One of the members of the GEAC is AK Pradhan, who took over as director of DU’s Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants, following Pental’s superannuation. Pradhan says, he never attended any meeting where the hybrid was discussed. K Veluthambi, co-chair of GEAC, is an expert on genetic engineering techniques and has, mostly, worked on GM rice. For the anti-camp, that is a disqualification. They indict B Sesikaran because biosafety tests were conducted at an accredited laboratory in Hyderabad’s National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), of which he was director.

Without naming Bayer, the CM suggests that the developers are fronting for it. That is because their hybrid is tolerant to glufosinate, the active ingredient in Basta, Bayer’s herbicide. The word herbicide is actually misleading. Glufosinate is basically a weed-killer and farmers would welcome such a trait in mustard. National sample surveys have shown that wages are a significant component of agricultural costs, and manual weeding is quite expensive. Workers are also not available when most needed. The CM sees weedicide tolerance as a zero-sum trait, where the German MNC gains at the expense of farmers, when the transaction is mutually benefiting.

Pradhan says weeds are not a serious problem with mustard. However, Orobanche, a parasitic weed, is wreaking havoc in the rainfed areas of Rajasthan. Orobanche cannot be controlled with glufosinate. Glyphosate, another weed-killer is effective, but DMH-11 is not engineered for resistance to glyphosate.

The CM argues that herbicide-tolerance has wreaked havoc in countries where it has been approved. But, modern agriculture is impossible without them. They are used even in those countries which are votaries of green policies like Germany. They import GM products but do not allow them to be grown on their soil. Even, no-till ‘conservation agriculture’ advocated by the Borlaug Institute for South Asia is not possible without the use of pre- and post-emergent herbicides.

The CM says Bayer ‘reportedly’ holds rights to the genes used in developing DMH-11. It is true that Bayer held the rights to the process by which the bar gene is expressed in mustard or rapeseed—this confers resistance to weedicide glufosinate—but the patent has lapsed.

Contrary to CM’s understanding, weedicide-tolerance is just a supplementary trait. The bar gene conferring resistance to glufosinate has been inserted to help hybrid seed production. The GM plants when spayed with glufosinate will be unaffected while non-GM plants will die. This allows production of hybrid seed of very high purity. Glufosinate is only required in hybrid seed production plots; not in farmers’ fields.

Since mustard is largely self-pollinating, the parental lines of hybrid which are awaiting regulatory approval, have been modified. One with the barnase gene to make this parental line male sterile so that it gets pollinated and fertilized by the other parent, an East European line, resulting in hybrids that have high yield potential. The presence of barstar protein negates the action of barnase protein. As a result the hybrids grown by the farmers are fully fertile. The barnase-barstar system has also gone off-patent. In the case of DMH-11, DU and NDDB jointly hold the patent in the US and India for a gene construct that prevents the barnase gene from expressing itself in tissues other than the plant’s anthers.

According to the CM, ‘there is now ample proof provided by the both ICAR’s Directorate of Rapeseed-Mustard Research (DRMR) in Bharatpur and civil society groups that the testing was deliberately misleading, so as to obtain favourable results for GM mustard.’ Pradhan points that the trials were conducted independently and says minutes prove this. Biosafety Level-I trials were conducted when JS Chauhan, currently ICAR’s assistant DG (seeds) was in-charge. BRL-II trials were conducted under the supervision of the current director, Dhiraj Singh. The DU team, Pradhan says, visited the sites only to ensure that the trials were conducted as per GEAC guidelines.

The CM also doubts the yield increase claimed for DMH-11. But Trilochan Mohapatra, D-G, ICAR, says ‘more than 20% heterosis (yield enhancement) has been recorded.’ He adds that he is ‘not really worried about heterosis in this particular hybrid as we can back-cross and generate better ones if this seed is deregulated and allowed for cultivation.’

The activists (not the CM), say mustard can be made male sterile using non-GM technology. But non-GM cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS) is not quite efficient. A CMS system (126-1) discovered and patented by DU group and used for developing hybrids DMH-1 and DMH-4 is limited in scope as it is stable only in one line—Pusa bold. In comparison, barnase-barstar-based method of pollination control, according to Pradhan, is a versatile system which can be used with any set of parental lines. CMS 126-1 also breaks down under very cold conditions which occur in Haryana and Punjab for a few days during winter. He cites DRMR-ICAR 2016 data on hybrid trials, which shows that all the CMS-based mustard hybrids had male sterile plants—the frequencies going as high as 100% at some of the locations. The barnase-barstar system produces almost 100% fertile hybrids, Pradhan says.

Kumar says transgenic technology is ‘hazardous’, but that is not the view most scientists hold. ICAR’s Mohapatra calls it ‘a wonderful science with tremendous potential.’ ICAR institute’s joint-director (research), KV Prabhu says GM technology ‘is the most viable option’ for self-sufficiency in food. PAU’s VC Baldev Singh Dhillon says ‘we will have to either control our needs or we will have to grow GM food.’ At the end of June, 110 Nobel laureates issued a statement supporting genetic engineering of crop plants. One can only hope that the CM will pay heed to the evidence supporting the other side.

The author is editor of Views are personal

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