heated discussions

Beyond ideology, why scientists disagree on GM mustard

The Supreme Court has put a stay on the release of the plant while it hears a petition alleging regulatory lapses.

The Supreme Court on Friday stayed the release of a genetically modified mustard plant while hearing a petition claiming there had been lapses in the government evaluation of its biosafety.

The deadline for public comments on a biosafety report on the Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11, a transgenic variety of mustard developed by scientists at the Delhi University, ended Wednesday amid widespread protests. This comes a month the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee that conducted the evaluation made the report public on the environment ministry’s website.

These protests have been joined by activist organisations across the political spectrum, including farmers’ associations affiliated with both the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Communist Party of India.

“There is a lot of a concern about genetically modified food crops,” explained Kirankumar Vissa, an activist associated with the Rythu Swarajya Vedike based in Andhra Pradesh. “It is not just environmentalists, but even consumers and scientists who object.”

How does it work?

Work on DMH-11 began 20 years ago at the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants under the guidance of former Delhi University Vice Chancellor Deepak Pental. Mustard is a self-pollinated plant, meaning that an individual plant has both male and female parts. This restricts the creation of hybrids of the plant.

The technology inserts two separate genes from a soil bacterium called Bacillus amyloliquefaciens into two genetically diverse mustard plants. One gene, barnase, suppresses pollen production, making it male-sterile and the other gene, barstar suppresses barnase in a fully fertile plant to prevent it from similarly becoming sterile.

This increases the chances of cross-pollination. This in turn will allow the creation of hybrid mustard varieties with potentially higher productivity.

Canada has been using a similar technology for seeds contributing to 80% of its mustard production. It is also the source of the Canola mustard oil, which India imports.

Scientific tempers raised

Activists and scientists have been objecting to genetically modified crops for years, but the protests against DMH-11 are slightly different.

For one, fears of a single seed variety controlled by a monopolistic seed company coming to dominate the market and impacting biodiversity are not as acute. Bt-cotton, the only transgenic crop permitted in India now, was developed by Monsanto, a multinational corporation known to aggressively defend its technologies. DMH-11, on the other hand, has been developed by Indian scientists in a public funded university. The patent for the technology is also with Delhi University.

Debates about genetically modified crops have always been heated, but with its ideological economic aspect taking a relative back seat, the debate science comes to the fore.

Those in support of DMH-11 say that objections to it are misguided and alarmist. Those against it say that studies in support of it are shoddy and sold out to multinationals. Both accuse the other side of lacking scientific temper.

Testing questioned

The arguments play out from the central question of whether humans and the environment will be at risk when an alien gene is inserted into a plant in the open.

The Supreme Court in 2012 appointed a Technical Expert Committee to examine this question while hearing a public interest litigation on whether the government should ban genetically modified crops. The report recommended against field trials until the regulatory system could be made more robust.

“During the past three years I have spent a great deal of time trying to understand the biosafety of genetically engineered foods,” said Dr PC Kesavan, a radiation biologist and genetic toxicologist who was a member of that committee. “I have arrived at the conclusion that genetic engineering rests on an incomplete understanding of the events which follow after random insertion of DNA into the recipient genome.”

The current biosafety tests last only 14 or 90 days, Kesavan pointed out. This, he believed, should last at least two years and include studies on the impact on multiple generations of crops.

Other scientists, such as Bhagirath Choudhary, founder-director of the South Asia Biotechnology Centre, said that the series of tests for DMH-11 that spread across nine years was more than sufficient.

Biotechnologists have to pass their genetically engineered organisms through a lengthy regulatory procedure before they can begin manufacturing them.

First, they must conduct a series of clinical and field trials according to guidelines issued by the Review Committee for Genetic Modification, a panel of more than 40 scientists in public sector universities. The committee evaluates these results, after which it sends the report to the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, which calls for comments and declares the technology safe or not. The central environment ministry has to approve the final report. States have the final call on whether they will permit genetically modified crops in their state.

This, Choudhary said, is adequate safeguard against any possible harm.

“Which scientist wants to develop poison?” Choudhary asked. “Raising issues like this is very childish.”

Are procedures transparent?

But underlying this disagreement is a mistrust of government procedures, which is the subject of the litigation pending in the Supreme Court. The GEAC has three members with close associations with companies involved in creating genetically modified seeds, activists allege.

Kesavan wrote an open letter to the GEAC saying that its evaluation period of a month was not sufficient to examine the data. The GEAC had promised to release the data to the public in March, which it has. This data, however, can be accessed only by going to the environment ministry in Delhi.

“The practice [of activists] with the government of India is that they have concerns about anything they do,” Choudhary said. The ministry, he added, had provided a detailed 133-page summary of a 4,000-page report that is available at the ministry in five different volumes.

“Anyone who wants to see it can go to the ministry,” Choudhary said. “But if the government puts the full report on the web, then activists will ask for the raw data, and if the government does that, they will ask how you arrived at it. They will never be satisfied.”

The raw data and testing procedure is precisely what scientists against the technology want access to. Based just on the summary report, certain concerns have arisen, from whether the new crop will be as productive as promised (the comparison is based on a variety of mustard available in 2010 when research on DMH-11 concluded), to the fact that it requires a herbicide called glufosinate that will be banned in the European Union from 2017 because it is known to be a neurotoxin, but has been available in India since 1987.

“One person cannot analyse the data in a month,” Kesavan said. “You need at least 120 days and that too with research assistants to help you go through the data.”

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