Minister’s death disrupts India’s GM mustard plans

boy in maize and mustard field
Copyright: Panos

Speed read

  • India’s GM regulator has approved GM mustard for commercial cultivation
  • But the death of a top minister could stymie the push for the GM crop
  • India’s leaders are under pressure to ban GM technology over biosafety concerns

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[NEW DELHI] Plans by the Indian government to release genetically modified (GM) food crops into this predominantly agricultural country have been plagued by opposition from scientists, activists and politicians — including those owing allegiance to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).  
On May 18, a week after the government’s regulator, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), approved the commercial release of a herbicide-tolerant GM mustard (Brassica juncea), Anil Dave, 60, the man on whom the final decision rested as central environment minister, died of a heart attack.   
Dave had been under enormous pressure — from lobbyists pushing the technology to increase yields on the one hand, and civil society groups opposing GM crops as harmful to environment and food security on the other.
Tarun Vijay, a former member of parliament for the ruling BJP, claimed in a blog that Dave would have banned GM mustard if he had not passed away. Vijay’s blog revealed serious opposition within the BJP circles to the idea of using GM technology on mustard, a traditional food item in India.

The man behind the development of GM mustard, Deepak Pental, director of the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP), University of Delhi, says it has the potential to increase yields and build disease resistance. CGMCP has submitted to GEAC a positive self-assessment for biosafety while applying for the release of GM mustard. 

“If GEAC-approved technology is not cleared, it will be a setback for Indian agri-biotech research.”

Deepak Pental, Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants

Pental explains to SciDev.Net that the DMH 11 variety — created by inserting barnase-barstar genes into a hybrid created from Indian and East European mustard strains — could increase mustard oil yields by 30 to 35 per cent. Barnase-barstar genes, derived from the soil bacterium Bacillus amyloliquefaciens, allow control of sterility and fertility in hybrid crops.  
However, Ashwani Mahajan, co-convenor of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), an influential affiliate of the BJP, has written a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi complaining that since patents for the barnase-barstar genes are partly held by Bayer, the German multinational, the claim that DMH11 GM mustard is indigenous is fraudulent.
Mahajan also warned that GM mustard has been engineered for use with the Bayer herbicide ‘Basta!’, which contains glufosinate, a known neurotoxin.
“We have indicated to the prime minister that GM mustard is not indigenous; it is not good for health, environment and biodiversity,” Mahajan tells SciDev.Net. “SJM has appealed to the prime minister to intervene and ensure that GM mustard is not released commercially.”
There are also other hurdles to the commercial release of GM mustard.
Its release is under challenge in India’s Supreme Court by environmentalists and food security activists. Aruna Rodrigues, lead petitioner in the case, sees advantage in the fact that the government has admitted in court that it has no proof that GM mustard can produce better yields than non-GM hybrids.
While the court has ordered publication of the full test data of GM mustard, its promoters have pleaded that the issue involves "commercial confidence trade secrets or intellectual property, the disclosure of which would harm the competitive position of the third party".

“Put simply, there are no agronomic benefits to releasing GM mustard while it can irreversibly jeopardise India’s farming, food, human health and its rich biodiversity.”

P. Pardha-Saradhi, University of Delhi

According to Vandana Shiva, a petitioner in the case, the main resistance against GM is coming from the provinces that make up the Indian federation.
Major states where mustard is grown and consumed like Bihar, Rajasthan and West Bengal, have declared that they would not allow GM crops to be grown within their territories. This echoes the state-led opposition seven years ago that thwarted an attempt to introduce genetically modified aubergine into India despite clearance from the GEAC.

Criticism of the CGMCP self-assessment also comes from P. Pardha-Saradhi, professor of biotechnology and transgenics at University of Delhi.
“The oil extracted from the DMH 11 variety is inferior, going by the compositional data presented. Rigorous testing by an independent agency is needed before any conclusion can be made,” Pardha-Saradhi tells SciDev.Net. “Put simply, there are no agronomic benefits to releasing GM mustard while it can irreversibly jeopardise India’s farming, food, human health and its rich biodiversity.”

Meanwhile, the all-party parliamentary standing committee on science and technology, environment and forests has called for freezing the clearance of GM mustard until it has had an opportunity to study it. “We are examining concerns expressed by various stakeholders regarding the health and environmental safety of GM mustard,” says Renuka Chowdhury, an opposition politician who heads the committee.
Pental says GM mustard, now 14 years in the making, has suffered only because “political propaganda” has interfered with rational decision-making. “If GEAC-approved technology is not cleared, it will be a setback for Indian agri-biotech research.”
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.