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GMO mustard in India nears approval

By Joan Conrow

Mustard seed in the field.

After 15 years in regulatory limbo, India’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) has recommended the environmental release of GMO mustard, finding that it is “as safe as conventional mustard” and "does not raise any public health or safety concerns for human beings or animal or environment.”

This approval comes none too soon, according to Dr. Deepak Pental, director of the Centre for Manipulation of Crop Plants at the University of Delhi, who worries that anti-GMO campaigns by activists mean that India is now falling behind in agricultural research and productivity.

Pental, a public sector scientist, has spent the past 30 years working with oilseed mustard, researching ways to improve yields and build resistance to white rust, Alternaria blight and stem rot. Mustard is grown on about 7 million hectares in India, primarily in dryland areas where very little irrigation is available.

“Millions of farmers are dependent on this crop for their livelihoods,” he said. Yet despite such intensive cultivation, food oils are India’s third largest import, topped only by hydrocarbons and defense equipment. The country meets about half of its edible oil demand with imports.

“I sometimes wonder if the same amount of money was being earned by our farmers rather than it going away from the country, that will bring more joy to the farmers and save some valuable foreign exchange with which the country can buy something else,” he said.

Pental discovered that by crossing Indian and East European types of mustard, “you get more productive hybrids.” Though he has developed a hybrid seed production system using cytoplasmic male sterility, “that is a little limited. There are only a few [parents] that can be used.” A transgenic technology that he adapted from GE rapeseed (canola), which is widely cultivated in Canada, has proven much more versatile.

“So our challenge is to convince the government that it should be deregulated,” Pental said. “Actually, it was developed in 2002, so 15 years have gone by, and we are still stuck. But once it goes to the farmer's field and farmers get 20 to 30 percent more yield, which we have seen in our experimental plots, they will not let go of the technology.”

But a group of activists opposed to the use of new genetics technology in agriculture has mounted a campaign to adversely influence Shri Anil Madhav Dave, the Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, who will soon make the final decision on GM mustard.

“Activists are conspiring to stop Indian mustard farmers from becoming competitive, keep our farmers poor and increase India’s dependence on imported GM canola and GM soybean oil,” said Dr. C.D. Mayee, president of the South Asia Biotechnology Centre, in calling for support of the release.  He is urging people to send emails in support of the release to the minister at ps2mefcc@gov.in.

In India, 47 percent of the citizens depend directly on the land for their livelihoods. Though that percentage will drop slightly in coming decades, the number of people will remain consistent as India’s population grows.

Dr. Deepak Pental  Photo by Joan Conrow

“So for a large part of this century, we will remain very heavily dependent on agriculture,” Pental said during an interview at his research laboratory at the University of Delhi’s South Campus, where he’s professor of genetics. “Therefore, rural prosperity is very important. That's number one. And number two, how do you bring prosperity, because land sizes are very small? I mean, if you compare India's landholdings with what is happening in the United States or Canada or even Europe, one can just give up and say there is no hope.”

Pental thinks farmers benefit economically from seeds that have a defense against pests and pathogens biologically built-in.

“If you have spent a huge amount of money on chemicals to protect your crop and then it fails, then you cannot even pay back the money that you have taken from the money lenders,” he said. “And that is why you see so many farmer suicides in the country, because the output is not commensurate with what they are investing.  It's a tough call for India's dryland marginal and small farmer on whether to invest in their crop. It's a real tough call.”

Pental attributes India’s R&D sluggishness to several factors, including the perception that agriculture is primarily agronomy and management, with no recognition that “research and development in plant breeding are the basic foundation on which the management works.”

The nation also has been historically slow to approve genetically engineered crops, aside from Bt cotton, in large part due to political pressures applied by anti-GMO activists.

“Scientific expertise takes time to develop,” Pental said. “So the past few years, when we have not been taking any strong position either way, have led to stagnation of research in this area, which worries me a lot. I know that firstly, no country has ever made it big in prosperity without good use of science and technology.

“And the second thing is if you are behind, you have to make an extra effort to catch up, if you're desirous of catching up. If you just want to take it as it comes, then that's a different matter. But we have thousands of young people who would like to make careers in biological sciences, who would like to do good research. So for their sake and for the country's sake, we have to try to be a frontline R&D country. It is important that we are cautious with GE crops, but not cautious to the extent that we are paralyzed.”

It is possible to increase yield and build farmer prosperity through conventional plant breeding techniques, he acknowledged. “Not everything we do is based on transgenics.”

“But you know, more and more, people would like to cut the breeding time. If you have a good gene sitting in a [wild relative] ….you would like to take that gene out and splice it into your plant. It will save anywhere from five to eight years. So why waste time because you have some ideological problem with the transgenic technology? That's very unfair to the farming communities.”

Though it’s been discouraging to see politics put his life’s work in limbo, Pental remains devoted to his field.

“Science and technology is the biggest thing that sort of identifies Homo sapiens, human beings,” he said with a laugh. “So any generation of knowledge, any creative work in science and technology, that excites me a lot. That's the marvel of being human.”

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