GM mustard release faces another hurdle

By TheHindu on 17 Jul 2017 | read

Dissent has crept in among agricultural scientists of the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) over the possible release of genetically modified mustard.

In May, NAAS President Panjab Singh wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, endorsing DMH-11, a variety of mustard developed by Deepak Pental of Delhi University, a NAAS Fellow, that employs genes from soil bacterium.

If approved, it would be the first transgenic edible crop to be grown in Indian fields.

The plant had gone through adequate tests and was declared “safe” and passed regulatory muster.

The Academy, according to Mr. Singh’s letter, was also cognisant of the “massive negative propaganda” on GM crops by “activists” that was causing “serious damage” to Indian agriculture.

The letter preceded a formal resolution by the NAAS, saying Central and State governments should take steps to ensure that DMH-11 is made available in farmer fields this year.

However, P.C. Kesavan, also a Fellow of the NAAS, wrote that he disagreed with this endorsement. “I believe the resolution of the NAAS is neither scientifically valid, nor ethical, and therefore not maintainable… I suggest its withdrawal,” he said.

Mr. Kesavan, a senior fellow of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, said DMH-11 did not perform as well as several other varieties and mustard hybrids and that the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the Environment Ministry body that cleared DMH-11, was riddled by a “conflict of interest.” DMH-11 is a hybrid variety of mustard developed by crossing a traditional variety of mustard, called Varuna, and an East European variety.

Mr. Kesavan emphasised that using genetically-modified technology to produce hybrid seed varieties was a “failed experiment” as evidenced by the experience of Bt cotton.

Though the latter occupied 95% of India’s acreage, its yields were on the decline since 2006, largely due to insect resistance, and that it nearly tripled the cost of producing cotton between 2006-2013, he argued in his letter, a copy of which was sent to the PM as well.

The NAAS — a 625-member body of agricultural scientists — had about 200 scientists in its quorum when it passed a resolution endorsing the GEAC’s decision to clear DMH-11 for commercial field trials.

Mr. Singh told The Hindu that he would be replying to Mr. Kesavan but this would not affect the NAAS’ decision.

“Mr. Kesavan has raised these points earlier too. We’d asked members for any objections and there were none except for those raised by him. It’s a unanimous decision,” he said in a phone conversation.

The GEAC, India’s apex regulator for genetically modified seeds, had cleared GM mustard for environmental release and use in farmer fields on May 11 this year.

However, the approval is contingent on a final nod from Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan.