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GM Mustard should not go the BT Brinjal way

LiveMint logoLiveMint 05-06-2017 K.K. Narayanan

Seven-and-a-half years ago, BT Brinjal, developed by two public agricultural universities, was approved for commercial cultivation by the genetic engineering approval committee (GEAC), a statutory body. BT Brinjal is inherently resistant to the notorious fruit and shoot borer (FSB) pest and therefore produces a marketable crop without the large number of chemical sprays that the farmer would have otherwise had to use. However, as fate would have it, this technology was held back from the Indian farmer through a “spoken order” by the then environment minister, Jairam Ramesh who, in the year 2010, succumbing to pressure from activists, overruled the science-based recommendation of GEAC, and imposed a moratorium on its commercialization. 

To justify his action, GEAC was rechristened as an “appraisal” committee, thus robbing it of its statutory powers to be the final arbiter in the commercialization of such technologies. Though the legal validity of this usurpation of powers of a statutory body by mere ministerial wordplay is questionable, the action resulted in the shelving of a valuable technology which would have brought immense benefits to the farmers and consumers of this country. 

Well, our neighbour Bangladesh, under the bold leadership of its agriculture minister, Matia Chowdhury, in the face of furious opposition by activists around the globe, went ahead and approved the technology for commercialization. Today, the Bangladeshi farmer is reaping the benefits of the technology developed in India, while our own farmers are reduced to surreptitiously planting the same seeds smuggled across the borders. Officially, the moratorium stands and therefore it is “illegal” to cultivate BT Brinjal in India.

A few days ago, the GEAC gave the go-ahead to another genetically modified (GM) technology developed by Prof. Deepak Pental and his team at Delhi University, the GM Mustard. Now the environment minister, Harsh Vardhan, has to take a call on allowing the GM Mustard to benefit the Indian farmer. Given the results of extensive bio-safety studies over the last decade and the edible oil shortage the country is facing, this should be an easy call and would perfectly be in sync with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s pronouncements on giving a boost to farming. However, that is not to be; the activists who are ideologically opposed to GM crop technologies have unleashed a virulent campaign with misleading propaganda and complete disregard for scientific evidence to stall this technology at this last stage. In this, they have the support of some Sangh Parivar organizations like the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), which the incumbent government cannot easily ignore. The GM Mustard was entirely developed in Delhi University with funding from the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) and the department of biotechnology. It is therefore strange that SJM is opposed to this swadeshi technology. 

India imports soybean oil, much of it is from GM soybean grown in US and Argentina. Cotton seed oil, over 1.5 million tonnes, obtained from Bt cotton grown in the country, is part of the country’s vegetable oil mix. The cotton-seed cake is widely used as cattle feed. There is no multinational corporation involved in the development of GM Mustard. The safety of GM Mustard has been scientifically validated through well-designed studies carried out over the last decade and the summary of results are in the public domain. The GEAC had no choice but to recommend this technology for commercial cultivation.

The yield levels of the Indian mustard, Brassica juncea, had plateaued in the last couple of decades. One way of breaking out of this ceiling is to exploit the hybrid vigour expressed in the first-generation progeny (hybrid variety) of a cross between two chosen parents. This approach is widely employed in the related species of oilseed crop, the rapeseed which is however, not extensively cultivated here. 

The flowers of mustard are bisexual and therefore if the seeds set in one of the parental line (female line) has to be a result of pollen coming from the other parent (male line) planted as a neighbouring row, the flowers in the female lines should not produce functional pollen; in other words, they have to be feminized. In nature, there are several mechanisms by which bisexual plants are effectively rendered female; one such example is natural male sterility. Such mechanisms are part of nature to promote cross-pollination that creates diversity by the mixing and random assortment of genes. In crops like rice and maize, the genetics of such natural male sterility is well studied and has been long used for the commercial production of hybrid seeds. In the Indian mustard, though such natural mechanism of male sterility exists, they are neither stable in all parental backgrounds nor are free from certain other undesirable effects. 

The GM Mustard technology developed by Delhi University scientists essentially feminizes one of the parental lines in which pollen development is disrupted by blocking the ability of a group of feeder cells in the anther sac (the tapetum) to provide the essential components for the primordial pollen cells to develop into fully mature and functional pollen grains. In the subsequent generation, however, the hybrid crop is fully fertile (flowers are bisexual) as the male line carries a component that “unblocks” the feeder cells facilitating the provision of all components needed for pollen development and function. This is a platform technology and can be widely deployed for any potential parental line combination, thus potentially removing the limitation in parental line choice for the exploitation of hybrid-vigour for mustard improvement. 

It would be a pity if the environment minister heeds the unreasonable voices opposing the GM Mustard technology and consigns it to the same fate as BT Brinjal. 

K. K. Narayanan is an agriculture expert and founder of Metahelix Life Sciences.

(Disclosure: The author has previously worked with the Monsanto Research Centre at the Indian Institute of Science. Thereafter he founded Metahelix Life Sciences—which he continues to advise—an Indian competitor to Monsanto in the seed and agriculture technology market.)

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