Amid din over GM and hybrids, natural crops can help reap a rich agrarian harvest

It has been one step forward and two steps back for Indian genetically-modified (GM) corps. In mid-October, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change approved the environmental release or larger field trials of Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11), a hybrid variant of GM mustard.

A week earlier, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) had recommended the larger field trials of the transgenic mustard hybrid. The environment ministry’s and the GEAC’s nod for DMH-11 is a major landmark in the country’s GM farming sector. The approvals for larger field trials of DMH-11 have come after two decades after Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton was permitted to be grown commercially way back in 2002. Bt cotton was and still happens to be the only GM crop to be cultivated commercially in the country. 

The nod for DMH-11 assumes even greater significance because it is now only a step away from getting approval for commercial cultivation. If the GM mustard succeeds in conforming to the prescribed safety standards in the larger field trials and gets the green light for its commercial cultivation, it will be India’s first transgenic food crop to be grown across the country’s fields.

The latest approval of the GEAC – the regulator of GM crops under the Union Environment Ministry – means that DMH-11 will have to undergo further field trials in larger designated fields across the country. These trials will have to be done under the supervision of The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) – the apex body under the Union Agriculture Ministry for coordinating, guiding and managing agricultural research and education. The field trials will be simultaneously accompanied with demonstration to farmers of growing the GM mustard, greater production of the transgenic mustard seeds as well as developing newer hybrid versions, which may provide even higher yields than those of DHM-11.

But the Indian GM revolution, which had received renewed momentum following the approval of DMH-11, has yet again been halted in its tracks. Early in November, the Supreme Court stayed the field trials of GM mustard and barred the cultivation of DMH-11 until it completed the hearing of a petition against the transgenic mustard. The apex court had to dust off the old 2005 petition, filed by Aruna Rodrigues, a leading environmental activist, and others, after they had sought the Supreme Court’s stay on the nod for DMH-11.

This is not the first time that a GM crop has hit a roadblock. After the approval to grow Bt cotton in 2002, the GEAC had also given its okay to Bollgard-II, a second-generation variety of Bt cotton. Since then, many unsuccessful attempts have been made to launch a GM food crop in the country. 

The GEAC had approved transgenic food crop Bt Brinjal for wider environmental release in 2009. However, the decision was later stayed by Jairam Ramesh, the then environment minister, on grounds of “insufficient scientific evidence about safety”. In 2017 too, the GEAC had cleared GM mustard for larger field trials. But the process had got stalled in the case that had been lodged in the Supreme Court in 2005. The government and the environment ministry had not supported the case of GM mustard then. This time around, however, the government is fully supporting the GEAC’s approval of GM mustard. It has filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court and detailed the processes and the safety standards involved granting the approval.


Big breakthrough

The stay on larger field trials of DMH-11 is a temporary setback for Deepak Pental, a renowned professor of genetics and former vice-chancellor of the Delhi University. Mr Pental and his dedicated team of scientists of the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP) of the Delhi University have worked for over two decades to make the transgenic mustard a reality.

Developing a GM variety of mustard has been quite a challenge for genetic scientists the world over. Being a self-pollinating plant, it is very difficult to develop hybrids of the plant with desired qualities. As in the case of a few other plants, a mustard flower has both male and female organs, which assist in self-pollination (transfer of pollen grains from the male anther of a flower to the female stigma of the same flower or another flower of the same plant) and make it difficult to undergo cross-pollination (transfer of pollen grains from the male anther of a flower to the female stigma of another flower of a different plant). While self-pollination perpetuates the same traits or characteristics of the parent plant in the offspring plant, it is cross-pollination that assists in developing hybrids with desired traits.

Mr Pental and his team cracked the puzzle presented by mustard by genetically modifying mustard through use of three genes – barnase, barstar and bar – from two bacteria present in soil. The banase-barstar-bar process enabled the scientists to cross-pollinate Indian and East European varieties of mustard and create DMH-11, which, Mr Pental says, provides a higher yield. Mr Pental and other scientists add that environmental release of DMH-11 can facilitate its cross-breeding with other varieties of Indian mustard and lead to sturdier hybrids with higher yields.

The patent on the indigenously-developed DMH-11 is jointly held by the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) – which was one of the major funders of the research, apart from the Union government, and hence the name Dhara (the popular brand of NDDB) in DMH-11 – and the Delhi University. The public ownership of the GM mustard technology will make the seeds cheaper when the technology is transferred to private companies for developing hybrids. The government, which is the ultimate owner of DMH-11, will make the seeds available at lower prices and negligible royalty, unlike the case of multinational company (MNC) Monsanto’s Bt cotton.    


Claims & counterclaims

An indigenously-developed GM food crop – and the country’s first one, moreover – like DMH-11 should have been a matter of pride and celebration. Besides, it should have been in the market by now, considering that the seed was ready by 2017. On the other hand, one can appreciate India’s regulatory rigour for the delay in releasing the seed. However, the unfortunate part of the story is that DMH-11 has turned out to be a seed of strife between scientists and environmental activists. Charges and counter-charges between proponents and opponents of GM mustard have been flying thick and fast, with some of them sadly beyond the realm of decency and reason.   


Row over yield

Mr Pental and the scientists of the ICAR, who have conducted various trials over three years, note that the transgenic mustard seed has a 28 per cent higher yield than that of its Indian variety Varuna – DMH-11 is an offspring of Indian parent Varuna and East European parent Early Heera-2. They also add that the GM mustard seed performs 37 per cent better than a few other Indian seed varieties that have undergone trials.

“Commercial use of GM mustard hybrid DMH-11 will allow Indian mustard farmers to produce more mustard per unit area,” stresses Bhagirath Choudhary, the founder director of the South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC). K C Bansal, the secretary of the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS), adds: “The DMH-11 is a step forward to reduce imports and be self-reliant in oilseed production.”

India’s average mustard yield is low at around 1.3 tonnes per hectare and has been stagnant for over two decades. Annual average domestic consumption of edible oil – a burning issue amid high prices – is around 250 lakh tonnes, while the domestic production is about 111 lakh tonnes. So, India ends up meeting around 56 per cent (roughly about 139 lakh tonnes) of its annual edible oil consumption through imports. The country’s edible oil import bill in FY22 was a whopping Rs 1,17,000 crore.

The scientists point out that the country’s rising edible oil import bill can be slashed by improving productivity of Indian mustard varieties by having more hybrids with high-yielding varieties from Canada, China and European countries. They stress that the barnase-barstar-bar technology can play a vital role in developing such newer hybrids.

But Ms Rodrigues, the petitioner against GM crops in the Supreme Court, disagrees with the scientists’ views. “India’s best varieties and non-GMO hybrids outperform DMH-11 hands down. Therefore, this GM mustard fails the first test of a GMO (genetically-modified organism) risk assessment protocol, which is of need. There is no point to this mustard,” she adds.

Ms Rodrigues also wonders how the GM mustard can bring down India’s edible oil import bill when mustard oil imports in the form of canola oil – a healthier version of mustard oil – from Canada and rapeseed oil – mustard is a major variety of the rapeseed family – from a few other countries make up less than 2 per cent of India’s total edible oil imports.

On the face of it, Ms Rodrigues’ assertion is spot on as imports of mustard oil equivalents are minuscule. But a deeper probe shows that the scientists are certainly not way off the mark. Mustard oil accounts for around 25 per cent of the total domestic edible oil production, while its domestic consumption is about 12 per cent. Moreover, India is the world’s third-largest producer of mustard seeds and the second-largest exporter of mustard seeds and mustard oil. So, higher yields of mustard can help in earning more foreign exchange through exports and indirectly reduce the import bill.

Meanwhile, a rather excessive stress on GM mustard to solve India’s edible oil deficit is too far-fetched. It is not the venerable scientists pushing this idea. The culprit here is the media, as usual blowing any little detail out of proportion. There is need for a multi-pronged strategy instead to boost oilseeds production, and GM crops can play a role here. The Centre’s National Mission on Oilseeds and Oil Palm is the right way forward. Besides, efforts must be made to develop many local varieties of oilseeds and other crops as environmentalists rightly point out.   


The HT bogey

The second objection to the GM mustard is related to the bar gene used in it. Green activists claim that the bar gene makes DMH-11 tolerant or resistant to a herbicide (a chemical used to destroy plants, especially weeds) called glufosinate-ammonium. They argue that the GM mustard is a herbicide-tolerant (HT) crop and poses potential risks.    

According to them, the HT DMH-11 can cause serious effects on human health. They allege that the GM crop has not been studied for the risks it will cause to human health. “There has been active fudging of data and a wholesale deviation from scientific norms in the field testing, from which no meaningful conclusions can be drawn,” accuses Ms Rodrigues.

The environmental activists also point out that when farmers are permitted to use DMH-11, they will have to spray glufosinate-ammonium. This will result in killing the weeds and other non-GM crops, including non-GM mustard, growing near the GM mustard. This happens because the bar gene eliminate all crops, including weeds, that do not have bar gene in them (in other words, non-GM crops), leaving the fields standing with only the GM mustard crop.     

The Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), a sister organisation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – the ideological fountainhead of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which heads the current government as the Centre – is also in the forefront of opposition to GM crops. The SJM is particularly opposed to the HT GM crops, which, it believes, will result in farmers using chemical herbicides instead of manual labour to eliminate weeds and lead to job losses in the agrarian sector.

Denying the green crusaders’ accusations, the scientists clarify that DMH-11 has not been developed as an HT crop. They add that the HT trait is only a selection marker or a trait used to identify the crops or the DMH-11 in this case. They point out that glufosinate-ammonium is used in a limited quantity during the seed production phase to isolate the GM mustard from other non-GM varieties of mustard.

The scientists and the GEAC have “recommended the usage of any formulation of herbicide exclusively for hybrid seed production and not for cultivation in farmers’ fields under any situation”. In other words, herbicides will be used only during the GM seed production stage by seed companies. But herbicides are barred from being used by farmers during cultivation of crops. 

The scientists counter the activists on a lack of safety studies and add that there is enough credible data that shows that DMH-11 is safe for human, animal and plant health. “This should set doubts at rest,” says Mr Pental, pointing to the over 4,000-page report in five spiral-bound volumes, loaded with safety data on all requisite parameters that his team has submitted to the GEAC.


Buzz around bees

Honeybees are another cause of concern for the anti-GM groups. They allege that GM mustard plants will drive away bees, prevent pollination the plants, and this could have knock-on environmental catastrophes. And it claims that the effect of one of the genes present in the transgenic hybrid can affect pollinators, specifically bees.

The scientists who developed the DMH-11 have conducted repeated trials over the years and shown that there is no evidence of a reduction of number of bees visiting GM mustard plants. Besides, there are various studies conducted in different parts of the world, which also indicate that bees have been flocking to both non-GM and GM plants without much difference.

Mark Lynas, a British author and journalist focused on environmentalism and climate, has an interesting take on the seemingly ever-growing scepticism of green activists. Mr Lynas, who himself was an anti-GM activist, admitted in 2013 that he was wrong in opposing GM technology. “There is always a demand for more and more ridiculous data. Feeding studies with 100 rats are not enough. We must have 10,000 rats! Or a million! It is just a blocking tactic, aimed at scaring the public. GM technology is as safe as any other form of crop breeding and probably safer,” stresses Mr Lynas.


Pollination of ideas

Many of the health concerns flagged by environmental activists over GM crops appear to be overblown and meaningless. According to estimates, roughly over 190 million hectares are under various GM crops across more than 70 countries today.

Frenzy over GM foods is also rather strange because transgenic crops are very much a part of the Indian food chain. Much of India’s huge imports of edible oil and other farm products are produced by GM technology. A large portion of the country’s cottonseed oil is extracted from transgenic Bt cotton, which makes up a mind-boggling 95 per cent of all cotton grown in the country.

However, GM crops – only cotton in India’s case currently – and, for that matter, a large number of so-called, high-yielding hybrid crops have displaced landraces or local, natural crops on a very large scale. Local crops are naturally-occurring variants of commonly-cultivated crops unlike the crops that are developed by selective breeding (hybrids) or through genetic engineering (GM) to express certain desired traits over the others.

Scaremongering apart, the concern voiced by environmentalists over GM crops replacing local crops is not entirely unfounded. An open-minded analysis of Bt cotton lays bare a bitter truth. Bt cotton may have made India the world’s second-largest producer after China and the second-largest exporter after the US. Domestic production of transgenic cotton has more than quadrupled in the past two decades from 8.62 million bales in 2002-03 to 34.10 million bales in 2021-22.

However, the impressive figures hide a very sad story of the indigenous varieties. Just before independence, about 90 per cent of cotton grown in India was of local varieties. The British had introduced foreign varieties of the fibre in India. But all their efforts could do little to shake off the supremacy of local cotton crops. But just two decades of Bt cotton have ended up reversing the situation today. Besides, cracks have developed in Bt cotton’s success story, with farmers complaining of new diseases impacting the transgenic crop.

The tragedy is not limited to cotton alone. Indian rice researchers had chronicled a whopping over 1,10,000 types of local, indigenous rice crops in the 1950s. That number has now been miserably reduced to a little more than 5,000 varieties. The Green Revolution of the 1960s did turn India from a ship-to-mouth economy to an agrarian powerhouse. But that feat was achieved at a very high cost. The hybrid varieties of rice rapidly drove away the local crops in large numbers. These hybrids demanded more irrigation and use of chemical fertilisers.   

A recurring story of Indian agriculture since independence has been the rapid replacement of local crops by hybrids. The proponents of hybrids and GM crops keep on blowing the trumpet of the benefits of high yields. But the cost of seeds and chemical fertilisers is conveniently overlooked. The crisis in modern Indian agriculture is not just the lack of remunerative prices for farmers’ crops but also the surging cost of farming, worsened by the exorbitant inputs.

Farmers are able to save and reuse the seeds in the case of organic and local crops. But the seeds of hybrid and GM varieties cannot be saved and reused thus compelling farmers to buy new seeds for each crop. The Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, 2001, is primarily designed to allow farmers to save and reuse their seeds. But the law is rendered meaningless when the government and its enormous agencies and research institutes are all engaged in promoting hybrids at the cost of local crops.

Fortunately, there is a glimmer of hope in the form of a few non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who are fighting against all odds to promote local varieties of crops. For instance, Pune, Maharashtra-based BAIF Development Research Foundation; Mysuru, Karnataka-based Sahaja Samrudha; Deheradun, Uttarakhand-headquartered Navdanya – founded by fiery green activist Vandana Shiva –and many more organisations across the country are all saving and reviving long-forgotten landraces of various crops and promoting them among farmers across the country.

“Biodiversity allows a natural mechanism for crops to develop traits to face challenging situations. Genetic diversity is the nature’s survival mechanism. However, given the large-scale human interference in crop selection, that ability is now lost in most crops,” points out Rajashree Joshi, the programme director of BAIF Development Research Foundation.

If NGOs with limited resources can do so much to create seed banks of rare local crops, the government with so much of power at its disposal can do more than paying a mere lip service to the farm sector. In fact, landraces serve multiple objectives of expanding the food basket, widening the biodiversity, improving socio-economic conditions of farmers as well as mitigating climate change.

It is not the purpose here to discredit GM or hybrid crops as they too serve some purpose. Strident views held by opposing groups serve no purpose. It is unreasonable and unnecessary for quite a large number of green activists to label every research work in GM and hybrid crops as designed to serve the MNCs’ interests. Besides, fearmongering over health effects of transgenic crops is uncalled for. Similarly, there is no point in the government and proponents of GM technology tarnishing all environmentalists as enemies of the country’s progress.

Landraces, GM and hybrid crops can and should coexist for a diverse and richer agrarian economy. The government and its agencies can certainly spare some resources and promote the landraces – which are after all the nation’s own valuable treasure – in the same vigour and enthusiasm as seen in GM and hybrid varieties. The nature’s wonder of cross-pollination has facilitated in growing and sustaining this rich biodiversity. A similar cross-pollination of diverse minds and ideas of scientists and environmentalists can definitely make life a better place to live.

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