As India waits to decide this month on whether to allow commercial release of the controversy-riddled genetically modified (GM) mustard variety Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11), the chorus of anti-GM scientists across the country has become louder.
The government has sought a month’s time from India's Supreme Court, which made clear on July 31 that it would hear a plea seeking a stay on the commercial release "if the government takes a decision in favour of its roll out."
Developed by a team led by Deepak Pental at the University of Delhi, DMH-11 was cleared for cultivation in May 2017 by the Genetic engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), India’s regulator for GM crops. But its march into the fields was halted by a massive opposition mounted by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as the Coalition for GM-free India. Its co-convener Kavita Kuruganti described the herbicide tolerant DMH-11 as a "dangerous gift to the nation" that will benefit only agri-business corporations and open the floodgates for GM foods.
Across the country, more and more scientists are now challenging the GEAC approval. "The GEAC approval is beyond scientific ethics," said molecular biologist Pushpa Bhargava, who is a Supreme Court appointed member of GEAC. "It is an example of India’s total and unquestioned submission to international crony capitalism,” he told Nature India .
Dissent has also erupted within the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) which, in a resolution in June 2017, had applauded GEAC's clearance. "It is deeply disturbing and shocking that Prime Minister Modi is being exhorted to add his weight to the approval of mustard DMH-11 based on false data," P C Kesavan, a Fellow of the Academy told Nature India.
Pental and his team created the hybrid DMH-11 from Indian and East European mustard varieties by inserting the Barnase and Barstar genes from a soil bacterium. A third one – the herbicide tolerant “bar” gene – was added to distinguish GM mustard plants from non-GM ones. The non-GM variety dies when sprayed with the herbicide glufosinate. Kesavan warns that the herbicide-tolerant trait in the GM crops could lead farmers to spray more glufosinate, leading to exposure to this neurotoxin.
On July 27, two former union health ministers – Anbumani Ramadoss and Vallabhbhai Kathiria – and a number of medical practitioners wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging him to "reject the “environmental release” citing adverse health impacts of herbicide tolerant GM crops. They said that no long-term health impact studies were done, and the bio-safety data has not been put in the public domain. "Please exhaust the available technologies before thinking of GM hybrids," pleaded Bhim Dahiya former director of research at Haryana Agricultural University in Hissar.
Economists too, led by Sudarshan Iyengar, former president of the Indian Society for Ecological Economics, have joined the campaign arguing "there are safe, proven solutions available to bring down India’s edible oil imports."
Sunil Verma, principal scientist at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad questioned in a comment published in "Pub Med Commons" the method used to certify that the Barnase and Barstar proteins expressed by the GM mustard are free from risks of food allergy. These proteins are expressed simultaneously in the final plant and they remain as a tight 'Barnase-Barstar' complex – and not in "free form" as assumed in the study – and so the safe tag for the GM-mustard is not acceptable, Verma writes.
But Pental whose team took 14 years to develop the GM hybrid dismisses all these fears. "The herbicide gene has been introduced only to facilitate hybrid seed production and is not required to be sprayed for getting higher productivity," he told Nature India. "Moreover, all the three genes – barnase, barstar and bar – in GM mustard have more than 20 years of history of safe use in rapeseed, a sister crop of mustard."
The Ministry of Environment and Forests is standing by GEAC, a unit under the ministry. In its affidavit to the Supreme Court filed on 29 July, the ministry said that GEAC followed all norms, the risk assessment studies showed no harmful effect to humans or animals, and the GM mustard, contrary to the claims by critics, "is not a herbicide tolerant crop."
But even if it gets a green signal from the Centre, GM mustard may not be embraced by all states in India. Chaveli Kameshwara Rao, co-founder of the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education in Bengaluru, says the state governments of Bihar, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan (India’s top mustard producing state) have already expressed their reservations.