Agri-biotechnology Briefing

GEAC Recommends Commercial Release of Deepak Pental’s GM Mustard, Defying Activists; Big Boost for India’s Oilseeds sector and the Agribiotechnology Industry

Prof Deepak Pental at his office in Delhi University. Photo by Vivian Fernandes

In a surprise decision, GEAC has recommended commercial release of GM mustard. A press release was to be issued on Friday explaining the reasons but is likely to be delayed, reports Vivian Fernandes. (This blurb was revised on 12 May. Speculations made earlier have been dropped after the GEAC Chairperson explained in a conversation the sequence of discussions at the GEAC meeting),

The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) has recommended to the environment minister the commercial release of genetically-modified (GM) mustard. The recommendation is for four years and “lot of conditions” have been imposed, GEAC Chairperson Amita Prasad told this website.  A detailed official press release will be issued on Friday, she added.

If the minister accepts the recommendation, GM mustard will be the second GM crop plant to be approved for cultivation by farmers in India and the first food crop. India had approved the cultivation of GM cotton in 2002.

All 26 members of the GEAC, except five were present at the meeting on Thursday, which lasted about 1½ hours. Two of the members recused themselves as they had worked with the Delhi University (DU) team headed by geneticist and former DU vice-chancellor Deepak Pental which had developed DMH-11, the hybrid for which approval was sought.  At the meeting the report of the GEAC sub-committee was discussed. The sub-committee was set up to examine comments received on the bio-safety data summary which was posted on the environment ministry’s website last year. A little over 700 comments were received of which 400 were found to be substantial, Prasad said.

The sub-committee assayed GM mustard with regard to herbicide tolerance, propensity to cause new allergies, toxicity and affect on honeybees and pollinators. It found the hybrid to be safe on all four counts, Prasad said.

GEAC had met eight times on GM mustard since the application seeking permission for commercial release was submitted in September 2015. The sub-committee had met three times.

GM mustard was developed entirely with public money. It was funded by the National Dairy Development Board and the Department of Biotechnology. But it ran into opposition from activists who feared that the release of GM mustard would clear the way for other GM crop plants.  They leveled a host of scurrilous charges against Pental and the GEAC.

The environment ministry for a change stood firm. In an affidavit to the Supreme Court it said the DMH-11 was safe. It said the activists of “lying.”

The GM mustard which has been recommended for commercial release uses the barnase-barstar system to cross pollinate Indian mustard with high-yielding European mustard varieties. It is a better system of creating hybrids than conventional cytoplasmic method of creating male sterility. Male sterility has to be created because mustard is a largely self-pollinating plant. GM mustard uses one gene to create male sterility and another gene to restore fertility. A third, bar gene, has been added for herbicide tolerance, to distinguish GM plants (those that are not will wither away when sprayed with the herbicide glufosinate).

“No government will put its people at risk,” said Prasad, in response to accusations of activists that if India approved GM mustard it would undermine its food security and expose people and animals to health hazards.

“Science and agriculture must move hand-in-hand,” she said.

The recommendation will boost the morale of the Indian agri-biotechnology industry, which has been despondent. It has been feeling forlorn as no new GM crop has been approved for cultivation since 2002. During the earlier UPA regime, left-leaning activists were opposed to the technology as they feared corporate takeover of Indian agriculture. Under the current regime, right-wing ideologues have been making the same charge.

If GM mustard is approved for cultivation – during the winter or rabi season – oilseed productivity should improve. There are those who claim that DMH-11 is not as high-yielding as claimed to be. That does not matter. What is important is that the barnase-barstar system is a more efficient process of creating hybrids. Once the process is approved, better hybrids can be created.

But India will also have to respect intellectual property rights if the private sector is to introduce GM traits that are useful for India. The agriculture ministry’s record in this respect does not inspire confidence.

(Top photo of Prof Deepak Pental by Vivian Fernandes)

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