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We risk missing out on the revolution in biological sciences

Jun 10, 2017

Last week, the environment ministry’s regulator, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), cleared the commercial release of genetically modified (GM) mustard, leaving it to the government to take a final call. If approved, it will be India’s first food crop developed using transgenic technology, 15 years after Bt cotton was released to farmers. The technology is safe and versatile, said Deepak Pental, innovator of the transgenic mustard variety and former head of Delhi University’s Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants where the research took place. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Please explain the technology behind GM mustard. How long did it take to develop?

It is known in plant breeding that hybrids yield more (output) than pure lines. We used genetic engineering to produce hybrid seeds at a very high purity… it is a versatile system by inserting the Barnase and Barstar genes and creating a hybrid from Indian and East European mustard varieties which gives between 20-30% higher yields. Now, the genes are not increasing the yield… they are only allowing us to make hybrid seeds in any combination. And this is not the end of it. Yields will go up further in next-generation hybrids like it happened in corn and cotton.

It took us close to 14 years to develop DMH 11 (the new GM mustard variety) because we (India) kept changing the bio-safety protocols and due to the court cases. So full blooded work was not possible, still it is more productive than any variety grown today.

How will farmers benefit? Can it help us overcome dependence on edible oil imports?

If mustard productivity improves, farmers will earn more and (domestic) deficit will be curtailed to some extent. Now, all our edible oil crops are low-yielding. We need to do front-ranking work in genomics to enhance their productivity. Crops like sesame, safflower are under great stress… they are low-yielding, they have diseases. If we keep slamming science and scientists, who is going to find a solution? All our solutions in agriculture, besides management issues, are going to come from science and technology. They already are. Why are we able to feed a (global) population which grew from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 7.3 billion today? How? It is through genetics, breeding… there is a revolution in biological sciences, every crop has been (genetically) sequenced. Are we going to avail of these opportunities or listen to the negativity that do not touch agriculture. Bring in technology in all facets of life—better cellphones and bullet trains and planes—but keep the farmer destitute.

What about health and environmental impacts?

In mustard there are around 80,000 proteins… In a day we consume anywhere between 200,000 to 300,000 different proteins. Now when transgenic technology came in, because you can jump the species barrier, people were concerned that the (introduced) genes may have ill-effects on health. How can this happen? Either the protein is allergenic like some people are to peanut butter… so we ensured that the introduced gene (like Barnase and Barstar which are taken from a bacterium) does not produce a protein which is allergenic or toxic. Using bio-safety techniques we checked for these. If we are scared like hell and keep on spreading lies how can we benefit from new technology? The lies (around GM technology) belong to a post-truth world. There is no rationality.

All the bio-safety tests were done by public (research) systems, funded by the government, without any commercial pressure… they were done in a straightforward manner to build the expertise in India for bio-safety analysis to give a leg-up to our agricultural research. There are no more interests beyond that.

Anti GM activists say the checks used were old varieties and not calculated against best available non-GM varieties.

The hybrids which give better yields than DMH 11 were developed by us. The funding came from National Dairy Development Board and the Department of Biotechnology. Now why did we feel that those hybrids do not have a future? Because, using them we cannot produce very pure hybrid seeds in large quantities, and that was limiting us. DMH 11 technology for hybrid seed production is far more versatile. So if you really want to bring about a revolution in mustard cultivation you need a stable system of seed production which Barnase/Barstar allows. Once the technology is in place you can use better parent lines to get higher yields. This is just the beginning.

As a scientist what is your opinion on India’s regulatory standards and delays?

The issue is more critical, now that our bio-safety protocols are as stringent as anywhere in the world. The question is do we accept new technologies or not. That has become more of a political discussion with grandstanding. If the government says something, the party, the opposition says something else. This is more of a political football than any rational decision-making. Even during the early days of Green Revolution the scientific community, the left and the right opposed dwarf wheat varieties saying it is a multinational ploy to take over Indian agriculture.

Do you think GM mustard has higher chances of being approved as it is developed by a public research body?

The picture is a bit larger. You don’t want multinationals—the threat being that if all technology is with them and the public sector is delivering nothing, you’re left very weak. You will not be able to fend for yourself and not be masters in your own planning of agricultural development. So the public system must work. Now the government spent around Rs90 crore to develop GM mustard. It may not want to recover costs and the technology can be made available to farmers cheap.

Bt Brinjal was approved by the GEAC in 2010 but was stalled by the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh. Are you expecting a repeat, or are more hopeful?

The government is aiming to improve farmers’ incomes. The prime minister has set a target to double incomes (by 2022). Now rural prosperity brings in a great amount of prosperity to the country. It’s a matter of livelihoods. What is it that we are giving to our farmers? Are we giving them improved wheat or hybrid rice which yields more, are we giving them disease-free plants? Are we giving them potato which is not affected by late blight (disease)? People have done that work in India… a late blight-resistant gene has been transferred from wild potato to cultivated ones. Why should we sit on that technology? We should give it to farmers so they can save money on chemical sprays.

Have regulatory hurdles impeded biotech research in India? Do you see interest among students?

We are hit badly. Students would like to go into areas which are highly remunerative or where there is some social acceptance. All the propaganda (around GM) has led to a decline in India’s research capabilities in agri-biotech. We are 20 years behind (the world). Fortunately government agencies have funded projects on genome sequencing, on marker-assisted breeding… so something is happening, not that we have completely died out. But the way it is going… this is a decisive moment. If we cannot release a technology that has been so thoroughly scrutinised, we will be staring at a bleak future.