GM Mustard – Facts and Fiction
The approval of GM Mustard by the highest regulatory body Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Govt of India is a very significant development for two reasons.
Firstly, it is the product of a public institution –University of Delhi South Campus (UDSC). A team of biotechnologists led by Prof. Deepak Pental have worked for almost three decades to bring this technology to the market. This project was funded by National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) as a part of their Dhara project to increase oilseeds production in the country. Multiple other government agencies also chipped in with their contributions. So, in total it is completely public funded research. This is worth celebrating as it is an achievement of the Indian scientists.
Secondly, it is the first GM food crop to be approved in India. The only other GM crop approved earlier is Cotton which is a fibre crop, although more than 10 lakh tons of cotton seed oil is being used in the country as cooking medium for the last 20 years. This approval is a recognition of the role that GM technology can play in ensuring edible oil security for the country. It is a matter of great concern that we are importing more than 60% of our ever-increasing edible oil requirements and last year our import bill on this account is more than Rs. 1.25 lakh crores. If we do not increase yields of oilseed crops like Mustard, Soybean, Ground Nut, Sunflower and others, this import situation will become unmanageable by the turn of this decade.
As can be expected the scaremongers have gone into an overdrive to put out various concerns about this technology since its approval two weeks back. Let us try to separate out fact from fiction.
This technology does not belong to Delhi University. It is actually Bayer’s patented technology which was once rejected by GEAC in 2001. Delhi University has to pay a royalty to Bayer for using this technology. Hence it is not a Swadeshi technology. No need to celebrate.
Bayer was the original developer of this technology which is called Bar Barstar Barnase (BBB) technology in Canola and commercialized in Canada in 1996 as event MS8xRF3. It was patented by Bayer but the global patents expired long back. This was not patented in India in any case.
Delhi University has developed a modified construct of this technology and created a different event than Bayer’s event. Hence it is not the same event as Bayer’s event. Delhi University and Dhara owned the patent on this discovery through vide patent no. 246501 granted on 26th August 2004. This patent was assigned to NDDB and DU in 2014. This patent description says “A mitochondrial DNA sequence comprising A126 – 1 CMS’. This patent expired from 26th August 2020. So, this is very much a Swadeshi technology and there is no royalty payable to Bayer on this. In any case Bayer divested this technology globally during the process of their merger with Monsanto a few years back.
BBB is an Herbicide Tolerance technology which uses Glufosinate as a herbicide for weed management and this herbicide is patented by Bayer. India will be paying huge royalties by using this herbicide.
This technology consists of three genes – Bar (Herbicide tolerant gene), Barnase (sterility inducing gene) and Barstar (Fertility restoring gene). Barnase and Barstar help in making male sterility robust and easier to handle. The bar gene is used for maintaining pure parent lines, avoiding contamination with other lines. The herbicide used is Glufosinate. This helps in having pure male sterile as well as restorer lines, a mechanism for which the regulatory approval is given for use in breeding and seed production. Under the approval given Glufosinate is used only as a marker in breeding and seed production fields and not for herbicide tolerance in commercial mustard cultivation fields. So, the fear is unfounded.
Glufosinate is an herbicide being used in India since 1999 and is not a new molecule. Its patent expired long back and is a generic molecule now. More than 50 lakh litres of Glufosinate is produced by Indian companies and used in India. No royalties are payable on this product.
The current approval explicitly prohibits the use of Glufosinate as a spray in commercial mustard fields. That approval has to come at a later date by the Central Insecticides Board if the developers provide the necessary data to support that application.
Herbicide Tolerance is bad for farmers, farm labour, environment and food safety. It should not be allowed in India where poor people work as farm labourers who undertake weeding operations and earn their livelihoods. This technology will displace labour. Dr Swaminathan advocated against it in his Biotechnology Policy of 2002.
Herbicide Tolerance technology has produced phenomenal benefits for the environment globally. Studies have shown that Herbicide Tolerance technology has resulted in over 300 million tons of carbon sequestration and reduced tillage, improved soils and weed control resulting in improved yields. Reduced tillage has shown substantial environmental benefits by reducing soil erosion and presence of chemicals in the soils in watershed areas, increasing moisture conservation and allowing plants to sequester greater amounts of carbon during drought years.
Farm labour displacement is a myth propagated by the elite. Those who work on the farms know that human labour availability has come down dramatically in the last ten years and cost has increased manifold. According to the data released by Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Agriculture Ministry, in many crops the component of human labour cost is more than 40% of the total cost of cultivation. In cotton it is almost 52% while in Mustard it is 54%. And timely availability is a major issue. Several welfare programs for the rural poor like MGNREGA have benefited them so much that their lives have improved significantly and farm labour is not a work of choice, hence labour availability has come down. If we want to improve farmers profits, we have to address this issue of labour availability and cost. The activists keep quoting the report of Dr Swaminathan which is 20 years old which said that we should be careful with the introduction of such technologies which might replace labour. Indian economy has undergone a huge change since then. Rural poor have the benefit of MGNREGA as well as many other welfare programs that support other options for livelihood, which was introduced after that report was written. Dr Swaminathan did not advocate not using the GM or HT technology at all. He only advocated that the approach to testing and evaluation of GM crops should stringent, elaborate and science based. GM Mustard has undergone such testing and evaluation, without any doubt. The labour dynamics and costs have undergone a complete change along with the rural living standards. It is important to look at situation and take decisions to solve problems of farmers. The time of Herbicide Tolerance has come now and not only in Mustard but in other crops too. Farmers who actually cultivate land want it very badly. Good weed management improves farm resource utilization and yields which are clear advantages for sustainable and profitable agriculture.
Herbicide Tolerant technology, or for that matter any technology, should have sufficient competition and options for the consumer. The Govt policy should facilitate robust competition in the market in order to keep prices under control, to give options to farmers and to ensure that resistance development is managed well.
The world is dominated with Glyphosate based HT traits. Glufosinate actually brings diversity into the weedicides used in HT technologies. We should approve multiple herbicides-based HT technologies so that the farmers have options to use many herbicides in their weed management programs thereby avoiding resistance development in the long run. The answer lies in using multiple options and adopting robust stewardship protocols.
Data on safety to honey bees is generated as a part of the regulatory protocol which establishes that there is no harm cause by this technology to honey bees. So honey producers need not worry.
MYTH No. 4:
GM foods are bad for human and animal safety. Cultivation of GM crops leads to development of resistance in insects and weeds leading to the creation of super insects and super weeds. They should not be allowed in India.
In India we have been consuming GM edible oils of Canola and Cotton for more than 15 years now. We import GM Canola and Soybean oil. Both these oils are blended with other edible oils we use in the country. We have not had a single health issue reported so far because of their use.
The safety of GM foods is established through more than 4000 studies published worldwide for the last 25 years. More than a trillion meals consisting of GM foods have been consumed so far in the world. Practically the whole world, including Europe (which is a show piece for activists for their anti-GM stand) consumes GM foods including GM edible oils.
Bangladesh approved Bt brinjal, which we failed to do due to activism in 2010, and their farmers and consumers are deriving benefits for more than five years now. There has been no health issue reported from there. On the other hand, we have been consuming Brinjal which is a crop that is heavily sprayed with chemical pesticides, completely oblivious to the fact that we missed approving a safer alternative 12 years back.
Several websites like ISAAA, Biofortified.org, informahealthcare.com, etc. provide thousands of studies on the safety of GM crops and foods. European Union ordered a special meta analysis of 130 research projects over 25 years involving more than 500 independent research groups and concluded that GMOs were as safe as the conventional counterparts. It is total falsehood being propagated that GM crops, particularly Herbicide Tolerance crops, cause cancer. There is no scientific evidence to support such a claim.
FAO recently released the document “Genetically modified crops: Safety, benefits, risks and global status” that concludes: GM crops are a new addition to crop varieties developed through traditional methods such as breeding, selection and mutation. The potential risks of pests becoming resistant, crops gaining weediness and GM foods posing safety issues to both human and animals are studied extensively and a science-based risk assessment and management has been adopted to safeguard humans, animals and environment. We can be rest assured that GM crops that are approved are safe and monitored continuously. More than 17 million farmers are planting GM crops in 29 countries and are reaping higher yield with reduced use of pesticides and better management of weeds among other benefits. The report provides an overview of the benefits, safety, and risks of GM crops and how the risks are assessed and managed.
GM crops are the most regulated crops in the world. GM foods undergo a very rigorous regulatory scrutiny before they are approved. Some of the countries like Japan approve use of GM foods after much scrutiny. Edible oils of GM Canola, GM Soy, GM Cotton etc have been approved all over the world. Why do the scaremongers keep harping on this point ad nauseum?
The argument that GM technology leads to resistance development in insects and weeds is specious. Resistance development in insects and weeds to chemical pesticides is a regular phenomenon and not specific to GM technology. There is an extensive and established science behind preventing and managing resistance in insects and weeds which has been followed globally to manage such eventuality with crop protection technologies like chemicals and GM. Making a portfolio of traits available to farmer is one of the ways in which we can provide him options to alternate their usage and prevent resistance development. There are some agronomic practices recommended to prevent resistance development. Instead of getting scared of resistance development we should embrace modern science and technology in agriculture with appropriate stewardship protocols and provide relief to our farmers.
Every technology has to be used in the most efficient way to achieve maximum results from it and not to have any unintended consequences. This principle is the same for all technologies in agriculture or in health care or anywhere else. That is why following stewardship protocols is very important for any technology. That is where our focus should be rather than discarding good technologies which can help our farmers.
We must trust our regulators. If GEAC has approved more than 25 health care products of rDNA technology, the equivalent of GM technology in crops, and we have been using them happily, why do the activists keep throwing mud at GEAC’s competence and processes to approve GM crops? Denigrating the regulators is a tactic used by the activists all over the world to poison public perception of regulators and destroy public confidence in the regulatory system. This should not be allowed to continue. RCGM and GEAC follow very rigorous scrutiny which is known to the biotech companies who undergo that process. We must keep confidence in our very strong regulatory system which is on par with the best in the world.
MYTH No. 5:
By approving GM Mustard, we will be handing over this market to private companies and this will only benefit private seed industry. There is no benefit for the consumer. DMH 11 did not produce higher yields than the conventional varieties and the technology developers are giving false information.
This technology will be licensed by Delhi University to all public and private organizations who are working on mustard breeding. This technology will make hybrid breeding and seed production more robust leading to development of better-quality hybrids that will increase yields. DMH 11 is only hybrid used in the regulatory process because every trait has to go through the regulatory process with a seed variety or hybrid as a test case. Normally such test cases would be very old hybrids as the regulatory process takes a long time. For example DMH 11 has been in the regulatory process for more than 15 years. By now better-quality genetics have come into breeding programs. We have to look at how this technology can help the new hybrid development. This was exactly what happened with Bt Cotton. The first hybrids that came out with Bt Cotton were quickly overshadowed by the next batch which came three years later with more modern genetics. This will happen with GM Mustard too.
Any seed technology can be commercialized only through seed. In some crops it is the private industry which is at the fore front of commercial operations while in others it is the public institutions or seed development corporations. In Mustard, private seed industry already plays a pivotal role. The beauty of a competitive market is that the prices are kept under check through competition. No private enterprise can make high profits at the cost of the farmer if there is sufficient competition in the market. Government policy has to just make sure that the markets are always competitive.
Currently out of about 70 lakh ha of mustard grown in the country around 60% is under hybrids which are essentially from private industry. Even the rest of 40% area under OP Varieties is also mainly contributed by private industry. Sometimes private industry multiplies the seed of public varieties and makes them available to farmers. In large acreage crop like Mustard you will not achieve the scale unless you use private seed industry to collaborate. So, there is nothing wrong with the private seed industry enhancing the quality of their Mustard hybrids by using the technology developed by DU. This is good for the farmer.
We have to increase yields of hybrids by improving the quality of hybrids which is possible with this technology. According to data published by the Government hybrids yield about 2000 Kg/ha compared to 1200 Kg/ha of OP Varieties. These yields of hybrids can go up further and more acreage can get converted from OP Varieties to hybrids. Additionally, hybrids have up to 42% oil content compared to 36% of OP Varieties. So why should we stay away from increasing hybrid acreages which give higher yields of mustard grain and oil?
How does the consumer get benefitted? If the yields and production of mustard goes up and we reduce imports of edible oils, it is the consumer who gets benefited through the price he pays for edible oils. Increased local availability reduces prices. With the destruction of edible oil supply chains from Ukraine (one of the largest producers of sunflower, canola, etc) the international prices of edible oils will remain high. We have to reduce our import bill which will benefit the whole economy including the consumers.
We have been exporting Mustard cake because it is non-GM. Our exports will take a beating if we make GM Cakes for animal feed.
The whole world consumes GM foods and animal feeds. Even Europe consumes plenty of imported GM foods. There is no reason to believe that our exports would get affected. Our exports of Mustard cake are not so big. We have to see the overall impact on the economy rather than a single item. We should imagine the multiplier effect of a technology that helps in increasing mustard yields in the country.
One more aspect we have to keep in mind. We are a protein deficient country. Our animals do not get enough protein and our animal productivity is very low. There is no reason why we should export cake. In fact, with every one ton of oil production an equal quantity of cake/meal is produced for livestock. In other words when we import GM Canola oil we are leaving behind an equal volume of cake/meal made from the same canola grain that was crushed to produce that oil. This is additional income for the farmers in those countries which are exporting oil to us. Also, we are leaving behind protein for their animals. If we produce the same in India we will have the benefit of oil, cake and protein availability in the country apart from improving our mustard farmer’s incomes. Who in his right senses will oppose such a proposal?
We should label GM foods so that consumers will have a choice to consume them or not.
This will be a futile exercise as nutritionally GM and non-GM foods are similar, therefore labeling will fulfil an ideological requirement rather than a scientific one.
Track record shows that labelling actually increases commodity prices as the differentiation divides the consumer base too, as we have seen with organic foods. The prices of organic foods are so high all over the world because they are aimed at a particular market segment that can afford to pay for such foods. If GM foods are labelled then we can assume that either GM or non-GM food prices will go up even though they are similar nutritionally. Also, the large majority of the Indian population at the middle and bottom of the pyramid, who need access to affordable food whether it is GM or Non-GM, will come under unnecessary pressure due to higher prices of their food. Price differentiation is very logical for value added products like nutrition fortified foods and similar ones which certain sections of the society buy at higher prices, but is baseless for two similar products grown from different types of seeds.
Additionally Indian agricultural production does not go through an identity preserved supply chain system which will make it extremely difficult to isolate output of GM crops. Our entire supply chain system will have to undergo a massive change to ensure that. This does not mean that we should not use GM crops or foods. Considerable data exists which shows that the GM foods are no different from their non-GM counter parts in terms of composition and safety. So why create a separate supply chain system and why label separately?
The concerns being circulated are actually myths which do not have scientific basis or supporting data as per the track record. Ideological opposition to technologies which are based on sound science and regulations should be prevented from killing our farmers interests and our country’s prosperity. It is important to create large scale awareness about the facts so that common man understands the truth behind this science.