The dangerous GM Mustard
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 19 May 2017 5 Comments

Makka ki roti aur Sarson ka sag” is a popular food item in north India, in particular, Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh where both maize and mustard are widely grown. The current concern is not about makka but sarson. Take any vegetarian dish made in much of north, east or west India and it is mustard oil in which it is cooked. Down south, it could be coconut oil in Kerala, gingelly oil in Tamil Nadu, Andhra or Karnataka.


Why, suddenly, has mustard taken centre stage? Genetically Modified Mustard has begun to stir both the scientific and activist lobbies, the latter vehemently against it, while the former is keeping the fingers crossed. This piece is about the now controversial Dhara GM mustard hybrid or DMH-II, developed by scientists of Delhi University, with former Vice Chancellor Deepak Pental in the lead.


Cracks are appearing in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Central Government over the issue of Genetically Modified (transgenic) crops. The Union Ministry of Environment & Forests has revived a committee to consider proposals on new GM crops, while the Union Ministry of Agriculture has flagged serious concerns that make approval virtually impossible.


The issue has now reached the doors of the Prime Minister with the Swadeshi Jagran Manch giving a blank paper in response to the invitation of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) to record all the comments on the data put up by it for public review on its website. Surprisingly, the time given for submitting comments was just thirty days, and unless one travelled to Delhi to review the comments on the GEAC website, there was no way someone far away from Delhi could record comments without having to travel to Delhi.


A sarson farmer in Punjab or western Uttar Pradesh who wishes to record his comments would simply be helpless and time limit is a big constraint now that the sarson sowing season is on. Contrast this with what former Union Minister for Agriculture and Environment, Jairam Ramesh (UPA-II), did at the height of the controversy surrounding Bt Brinjal, when he took the issue right up to the stake holders on the ground, inviting their opinions.


Four meetings were held in different parts of the country and all were invited to participate - scientists, farmers, activists etc. It is noteworthy that at the time, when a PIL against GM crops in general was going on in the Supreme Court, in 2006, Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company, an outreach of Monsanto) came up with data (both field trials and laboratory tests) on Bt brinjal.


On the observation of then Chief Justice of India, Mr Y.K. Sabharwal, that the entire question of GM crops should be examined by a committee of independent and committed experts, the Centre For Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad, took the initiative to set up an Independent Expert Committee, of which this author was unanimously elected Chairman, to examine the entire data furnished by Mahyco.


The committee had a leading plant physiologist, a nutritionist, an entomologist, an economist, and farmers’ representatives, with the Centre For Sustainable Agriculture coordinating the activities. As an agronomist and soil scientist, this author could give effective guidance to the committee. This Independent Expert Committee found several lapses, especially on field data and bio safety evaluation in the laboratory, and submitted its report to the Supreme Court in October 2006. This author also wrote an open letter to the Minister, against Bt brinjal, which was published in the New Indian Express on February 9, 2010. All of these efforts led to the clamping of an indefinite moratorium on Bt brinjal on February 10, which stands to date. The haste and secrecy with which the GEAC is now moving on mustard, which is another food crop like brinjal, is subject to much suspicion. 



GM mustard has once again raised its ugly head because of the most recent green signal given by the GEAC. It is now on the table of the Minister who will replace late Anil Dave (d. 18 May 2017), minister of state for environment and forests, for final clearance.


What is at stake?


The most important thing to consider is that the propagator must have been blessed by Bayer, manufacturer of BASTA, the chemical herbicide to be sprayed on the GM mustard to control weeds. This is a selective herbicide because it will protect the GM mustard, while destroying all other weeds, including neighbouring plants on the border of the GM plot. In substance, BASTA and GM mustard will go hand-in-hand. Think of the pecuniary windfall for Bayer.


Farm women will be hit the hardest


As of now, in most mustard fields, weeding is still done by women farm laborers. Think of the loss of jobs for these poor women. A conservative estimate shows that even 25% adoption of GM mustard in India would lead to the loss of a crore employment days for women.


In its election manifesto, the BJP had promised that no GM crops will be allowed to be cultivated in India. Why this treachery now, if at all government gives the final nod?


The way forward


This author suggests that the Centre take a cue from Shri Jairam Ramesh on the question of GM mustard. Let there be an open debate whether India needs GM mustard or not. Jairam Ramesh went round the country meeting farmers, scientists and activists. This needs to be repeated to arrive at a consensus on this food crop. 


Anti-GM activists gatecrashed the June 20, 2016 meeting of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee in Delhi, which was to decide the fate of GM mustard, and lambasted DMH-11 as a “major scientific fraud”.


Setting aside needless activism and emotions, what is important to discuss first is - does India need a genetically modified mustard crop? One must remember that mustard is a food crop, and any genetic tampering with it must pass rigorous bio safety tests. Obviously, that has not been the case with DMH-II.


The developers of this GM mustard variety claimed that three gene sources were tapped, first, the Bacillus thuringiensis, the single source which has been used to develop Bt Cotton, and are silent on the other two bacterial sources. To the best of this author’s knowledge, there cannot be another bacterial source apart from the one named above, which can be sourced to impart the requisite genetic resistance.

Secondly, the developer claims that DMH-II is resistant to Basta, a selective herbicide manufactured by Bayer Crop Science. This is inarguably a market ploy, similar to what “Round Up Ready Flex Bt cotton”, which Monsanto-Mahyco combine proposed to introduce in India, the effort subsequently stalled because of irreconcilable differences on the price structure for the new cotton variety between New Delhi and the MNC combine.


However, the worrisome aspect is that Basta is a glyphosate-based herbicide, similar to the Round Up used in Soybean. The World Health Organisation has declared that the glyphosate chemical is carcinogenic with several adverse effects on humans, including autism.


The Directorate of Mustard, Union Ministry of Agriculture, independently interrogated Deepak Pental, developer of the DMH-II on the methodology of his field trial, pointedly asking if the transgenic mustard was tested with the prescribed 50 metre (empty) “Buffer Zone” border on all sides of the GM mustard, to prevent cross-pollination and contamination of neighbouring crops. The team was asked if they had systematically tested the effect of transgenic pollen on the population of honey bees, predators and other farm-friendly insects.


In this context it must be pointed out that the role of honey bees in global agriculture as agents of pollinators runs into billions. All this would be severely affected by the new technology. All these need to be tested scrupulously to conclude whether or not GM mustard is safe to cultivate and possesses environmental integrity. This was not done.


As every part of the mustard plant is used for one or other food purposes, including as green fodder for cattle, Pental was questioned about his data for safe use; data pertaining to socio-economic issues, including cost of cultivation; and if India would end up promoting the carcinogenic MNC herbicide, glyphosate, (Monsanto’s trade named “Roundup” whose patent expired in 2000) through GM technology. 


More pertinently, as mustard is an oil crop, there is danger of mixing/contamination of oils from GM and non-GM crops. The critical policy issues concerning labelling, extraction and traceability need to be addressed well in advance of commercialisation. In this context, it is important to note that with soybean, the principal difference between a GM soybean and a non GM soybean is that in the former, the toxic compound formaldehyde stays put in the cells while in the latter it is excreted.


This is the latest finding from systems research and soybean is a dicot plant. There are two kinds of plant species, monocot (cot refers to cotyledon number, monocot means one cotyledon like rice, wheat and maize) and dicots (with two cotyledon like soybean). Mustard is a dicot plant and the inherent danger from formaldehyde accumulation in the cell can well be imagined.


The neurotoxicity of GM and its effect on reproduction, on embryos and insect larvae, and on animals, eye and skin irritation, effect on non-target plants, and carcinogenicity have to be studied. These investigations have not been done in the case of DMH-11. 


Agriculture Ministry experts question the need for a GM-based hybrid as the yield advantage claimed by DMH-11 is at par with contemporary high yielding non-GM varieties of Mustard. And as even better yielding varieties are now available (RH 749 being the highest yielding), the transgenic mustard yield must be compared with the latest released varieties/hybrids, not the one that has not been in cultivation since more than three decades, as has been the case.


Thereafter, the transgenic mustard must be tested in different agro-climatic conditions for differential climate impact in representative mustard growing regions of the country after which alone can a cost-benefit analysis be done. This rigorous procedure has not been adhered to.


Most importantly, a complete metabolomic profiling (a tool to understand the mechanisms of toxicity) is necessary to properly compare GM and non-GM crops. This detailed forensic scrutiny of the GM field trial reportedly shocked the Pental team, which has been trying to bulldoze the project on the strength of Monsanto’s many well wishers, covertly and overtly.


The team is reportedly ill-equipped in hard data. It floundered when questioned about the methods of seed production and price, and means of preventing seed monopoly. The latter is the real end game of GM technology, which is why it is called the ‘kill switch’ of agriculture.


It is important to remember that in India we still do not have the “choice system” in place in the market. In the ultimate analysis, a consumer must have the choice between a GM and a non GM product. Until such a fool proof system is in place, we cannot let the market forces play with the safety and health of millions of unsuspecting Indians using mustard oil for cooking.


It is pertinent to note that as per the legal provisions of the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority Act, no registration of a variety can be made in cases where prevention of commercial exploitation of such a variety is necessary to protect public order or public morality or human, animal and plant life and health, or to avoid serious prejudice to the environment.


Further, no variety of any genera or species which involves any technology (including genetic use restriction technology and terminator technology, commonly known as GURT in which a GM plant will not produce its own seeds and so the Indian farmer cannot re-sow his produce as has been the custom in India) injurious to the life or health of human beings, animals or plants can be registered under the Act. This is an unsuspected and insurmountable hurdle. 


Meanwhile, in their anxiety to promote transgenics, the US Embassy’s Minister-Counsellor of Agriculture, Scott Sindelar, and Santosh K Singh of the US Foreign Agricultural Service, directly interacted with farmers at Hapur, UP, last year, but could not convince them of the merit of GM crops.     


Post Script


At the time of writing this article, there is a new development in Delhi wherein it has been decided by the GEAC that there is no need for any further field tests on this GM mustard. On the heels of this decision, there is another proposal which says that the option to test or not would vest with individual states. According to the rules, each state must provide a “No Objection Certificate” (NOC), before trails are carried out on university plots. Several States, like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Orissa, Kerala and Karnataka have said a definite “NO” to such trials. 


On October 8, 2016 a public meeting was held in Kozhikode, Kerala, where this author was invited to speak to a huge audience of scientists, students, activists and politicians, on “Altered Genes and Twisted Truth – The Story of GM crops in India” to which the State Government’s minister of agriculture, Sunil Kumar, was also invited. The minister assured the author that he would write strongly against GM mustard to the Government of India, which he has done. This is commendable. 


Surprisingly, the GEAC has taken the position that it would write to each state and give it 90 days of “grace period” during which, if a definite answer is not received, it would be assumed that the state has no objection. This is quite intriguing, to say the least. Obviously, there is covert pressure from powerful quarters to push GM mustard.


It is informative to note in this context that despite much political pressure, the European Union (EU) which for long resisted introduction of GM crops, finally allowed import of GM “Round Up Ready” soybean of Monsanto to be used as animal feed. But, for the cultivation of GM crops, it is still, a definite “No”.  


The author is former Professor, National Science Foundation, The Royal Society, Belgium & Senior Fellow, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, The Federal Republic of Germany. His latest book is The Nutrient Buffer Power Concept For Sustainable Agriculture, Norton Press, 2016, ISBN NO: 978-93-5206-760-2, Price: 2500/-, available at:

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