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Geac Torpedoes Commeracialisation of GM Mustard in India 


The postponement of the decision of approval for commercial cultivation of Genetically Modified (GM) mustard in India, by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), Ministry of Forests and Environment (MoFE), Government of India (GoI), is a repeat performance of last year, then in the case of Bt-cotton.   The only difference is that then the GEAC asked for additional trial data and now none has been suggested for GM mustard yet.   To say the least, this is an unfortunate decision, that has perplexed the scientific community everywhere, as there are no compelling reasons to support the postponement of the decision.   .   The GM mustard is the first consumer product of biotechnology to enter India.   The world’s experience with GM canola and mustard has not indicated any noticeable risks. 

Trials of GM mustard in India 
With permission from the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation, that is a part of the regulatory process of genetically engineered products in India, Proagro, the producers of GM mustard in India, have conducted field trials, in 50 locations in Gujarat, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, with seven entries of three test hybrids (GM variety) and four checks.   The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), Government of India, coordinated these trials.   A Review Committee consisting of 20 agricultural scientists and biotechnologists, from different public and private institutions in India, inspected the fields and examined the data generated and submitted a report to the GEAC on October 16, 2002. 
Prior to the ICAR coordinated trials, Proagro’s GM mustard has been on different trials and tests in India, since the company acquired the GM seed from Belgium about seven years ago and has been back crossing it ever since, with the Indian varieties.  

Trials abroad

Proagro’s parent company Aventis has successfully introduced the GM canola (very closely related to mustard), using the same genetic machinery, in 1996.   Since then, hybrid canola cultivation has expanded to the current level of 8,00,000 hectares in North America.   Regulatory agencies in such countries as Canada, USA, Japan and Mexico have approved consumption of GM canola.   The health and safety questions about the technology have been settled beyond a reasonable doubt.

The gene system in the GM mustard:

The barnase/barstar gene system provides for male sterility lines and a restorer system in the female line, to produce hybrids.   This system is not for developing herbicide resistant/tolerant crop, as alleged by some activists.   The barnase/barstar is a complicated gene technology, which in itself is one of the ingenious and innovative tools of biotechnology.   It helped to produce improved hybrids of such crucifer crops as canola and mustard, where none was possible earlier.   Currently, there is no hope of producing hybrids without this gene system.  
There is no scientific evidence that the barnase/barstar gene system is ‘leaky’ to cause plant deformations and create untold biological effects, as also alleged by its critics in India.   The stability of this gene system in the genome of crucifer crops has been confirmed by hundreds of molecular and classical genetic studies.  Hundreds of nuclear male sterile lines of canola have been cultivated in thousands of hectares in North America and not a single instance of this alleged biological effect has been reported.
The bar gene is a marker useful to detect gene flow, by spraying a herbicide.   The gene is silent in the absence of herbicide spray.   In the ICAR coordinated trials of the GM mustard in question, the herbicide Basta was used.   Technology now exists to remove the bar gene, at the time of mass production of seed for cultivation purposes, if this is necessary for political or public concern reasons and not for any scientific reasons.  
The phosphonithricin resistance-coding (pat) gene is used to eliminate undesirable segregates.   The technology has proved to be extremely useful, wherever mustard or related crops are grown on a commercial scale, to produce seed of uniformly high quality for planting.  The pat gene is not meant to introduce herbicide resistance.
The whole set of gene system used in canola and mustard is an ingenious development in rDNA technology that can confer nuclear male sterility to self-pollinating plants in a stable manner to produce hybrids using a female restorer line.   Male sterile lines do not normally occur in crop plants, as they have always been selected for high levels of fertility.   Some thirty years of research on canola and mustard led to the identification of only one male sterile line and an imperfect restorer female line, making this natural system commercially nonviable.   GM technology has shown the way out.
Seed and oil yield of GM mustard in trials:

The Review Committee reported that the average yield of seed of the three test hybrids was about 121 tons of seed/hectare, and ranged from 119 to 124 tons, signifying an average increase of 21 per cent (ranging from 19 to 24 per cent) over the test variety ‘varuna’.
The average oil content of the same hybrids was 39.25 per cent (ranging form 39.20 to 39.31 per cent), a 15 per cent increase over 38.48 per cent of the check variety ‘varuna’.   This is significantly higher than that of any Indian mustard variety in cultivation in India.  
Pollen drift:

Mustard pollen may drift to 15 to 20 meters.   Pollen drift becomes significant, only if the pollen thus drifted are viable.   Mere pollen drift does not ensure gene transfer.  Even if there is gene escape, it is of no consequence because the introduced gene system causes production of only sterile pollen that are incapable of fertilisation.   A two-year study of herbicide tolerant canola from Australia (Science 2002), confirms this.   The prescribed acceptable impurity level of canola seeds, which is less than one per cent, has never been crossed.    
Cross-pollination studies were conducted in Haryana for two seasons (2001 and 2002), on the Indian GM mustard.     The Review Committee reported that the extent of gene flow was assessed on the basis of the percentage of survivors on spraying the herbicide Basta, on the border rows of about 2500 non-GM mustard plants.   It wasreported that the mean survival, an indicator of gene flow, was 0.1% at 5 meters, 0.02% at 10 meters and zero anywhere from 15 to 50 meters.  The conclusion is that the risk of gene flow from GM mustard to non-GM mustard is miniscule and has no significant biological or environmental impact.
Recommendation of the Review Committee: 

Even in the face of its own very positive observations, the Review Committee surprisingly recommended that the trials must be conducted for one more year by making sure that statistically significant, reliable and reproducible yield data can be obtained, because of yield inconsistencies and also for the reason that the check variety did not perform uniformly in some locations. 
If the check variety does not perform uniformly, how does it becomes the deficiency of the GM variety?   This certainly is not a concern of biosafety or environmental impact.   On what grounds the GEAC can insist that a new variety, GM or non-GM, should have yield higher than the normal varieties?   The traits chosen for genetic modification are different.
The decision of the GEAC:

While deferring the decision of approval for commercialisation of GM mustard in India, the GEAC did not accept the recommendation of the Review Committee in full, since the GEAC did not ask for any additional trials, though recommended by the Review Committee.   GEAC asked for additional trials in a similar situation with regard to Bt-cotton about a year ago. 
The GEAC raised some questions, for which there is no basis in the Review Committee’s report or elsewhere. 
One of them is that the company has conducted tests on the safety of the oil and not the leaf that is used as a vegetable.   Sarsoan, mustard greens used as vegetable, are usually grown exclusively for the purpose, like methi, and picked when tender.   The leaves of varieties for use as a vegetable are broad and rather thicker than the seed and oil varieties.  
If GM mustard leaf has to be tested for safety, tests on rabbits and cattle are of no use, as they would not tell what they feel on consuming the leaf, if at all they do.   Tests on human volunteers border pharmaceutical clinical tests, which are totally outside the jurisdiction of the GEAC and the Ministry of Forests and Environment.
GEAC felt that the yield increase is not uniform.  Yield is a quantitative trait, governed by several genes and it can never be uniform, only the margin of variation could be narrow.   The seed yield in the trials varied from 119 to 124 tons/hectare, which is about 4 per cent variation.   How much more uniformity could one ask for?   The yield of oil varied from 39.2 to 39.31 per cent (of the seed), compared to 38.48 per cent of the reference variety, more uniform than the seed yield.
GEAC also wondered that GM mustard might not be useful in all areas, in the country.   The same question could be raised with cotton or rice or any other crop.   The farmers and consumers will judge the usefulness of a product.   
The GEAC did not learn any lessons from last year’s Bt-cotton episode of illegal release and cultivation of the GM crop.   The same thing is very likely to happen with GM mustard too. 
By failing to take any action on the release of illegal Bt-cotton for cultivation in several thousands of acres in Gujarat and elsewhere last year, the GEAC and the Government of India have demonstrated an utter lack of political will and administrative foresight, to take right and bold decisions.    This will certainly encourage illegal release of GM mustard by some one or the other.  

As in the case of Bt cotton earlier, the deferment of GEAC’s approval of GM mustard will make the mustard farmers miss the rabi (winter) season. 
If only less than half of the 18 members of the GEAC attended the meeting, it speaks volumes of the sense of responsibility of the members.     In the GEAC’s deferment of their decision by ‘a few weeks’ is probably based on the hope that another meeting will have a better attendance.   If one goes by the happenings with the GEAC over the past year or so, this is very unlikely.  
There is no accountability and transparency in the dealings of the GEAC.   Biotechnology is a public issue and cannot be shrouded in official secrecy.   The FBAE has been insisting that the GEAC should place all data on the Internet so that any one who is interested can have an access to it and that any one connected with developing or funding crop improvement programmes, such as the ICAR and the DBT, should not be on the GEAC.
The pressure from the NGOs might have induced cold feet on the part of the GEAC.
Gene Campaign questioned the veracity of the test data for GM mustard, since they came from two private labs. Test data do not become automatically suspect simply because they come from private labs.   It is the responsibility of the Review Committee to check the veracity and reliability of the laboratory data.   Such an evaluation is better based on rigorous scientific peer review, as is the practice with scientific publications and reporting.
What is unfortunate is that, on account of needless secrecy and for want of transparency on the part of the GEAC, a number of NGOs and activists spread misinformation and disinformation, crying the wolf, which only creates unnecessary doubts and fears in the minds of the public regarding biotechnology.  

The Chairman of the GEAC, a very competent and high ranking civil servant, should lead his committee towards openness by providing for public debates and by posting all relevant test data on his Ministry’s website, in order to build up public trust in the functioning of the GEAC.   Otherwise, the GEAC will only cause more harm than good, to the growth of biotechnology and deny its probable benefits to the country.
Professor C Kameswara Rao
Executive Secretary
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education
No 1, Gupta’s Layout, Southend Road, Bangalore 560 004
Ph.: 080-6549470; E-m.: krao@vsnl.com