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Why there is really 'no established need' in India for genetic modification of mustard

By Rosamma Thomas* 

On October 18, 2022 the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, India’s regulatory body for gene technologies, approved genetically modified mustard crop for cultivation in farmers’ fields. In 2002, Proagro Seed Company, a subsidiary of Bayer, had applied for commercial approval of a similar crop. Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), at that time, did not find evidence of superior yield in the GM crop and rejected the application.
Hybridization of GM mustard is made possible by two genes, the sterility gene barnase and fertility restorer barstar, derived from soil bacterium Bacillus amyloliquefaciens. The gene is a patented technology of Bayer Crop Science. If Bayer owns the patent of the genes used in the mustard developed by scientists at Delhi University led by Prof Deepak Pental, how could it be termed ‘swadeshi’? Royalty payments will need to be paid to Bayer, and this detail is not in the public domain.
There are also questions about claims of more abundant crop from this “new” mustard, which in turn is expected to reduce India’s dependence on import of cooking oil. However, the new crop will need use of glufosinate herbicide, which too will benefit Bayer. Even the development of this crop flies in the face of India’s pesticide regulations. GM mustard has also not been tested as a herbicide tolerant crop.
The major mustard growing parts of the country were all earlier opposed to GM mustard, and field trials were not allowed. Lakhs of bee-keepers depend on mustard for their harvest of honey; the mustard leaves are cooked, and oilseed cake is used in organic farming, and the oil is used in Ayurveda. Such a crop cannot be exploited for genetic engineering without setting off likely unpredictable changes affecting the ecology, livelihoods and health.
GM technology is irreversible and uncontrollable once it is released in the environment. Given the lack of safety tests to the environment and human health, there are calls on the government to reverse its decision. GM mustard would be the first food crop to receive such clearance in India – the only other GM crop currently cultivated is cotton, and BT cotton has fallen far short of what was earlier promised – the BT cotton areas of Vidarbha in Maharashtra have seen a large number of farmer suicides.
In a letter to the Union minister of Environment Bhupender Yadav, Ashwini Mahajan of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch pointed out that gluphosinate, much like glyphosate, is dangerous to human and environmental health. It is the non-GM tag on Indian food products that makes produce from India attractive to European buyers. Over five lakh crore of Indian food products are currently exported, and the ill-considered introduction of GM mustard could adversely affect exports.
Aruna Rodrigues, who has petitioned the Supreme Court seeking a moratorium on environmental release of genetically modified organisms in the absence of comprehensive, transparent and rigorous biosafety protocols, has shown that there is really no established “need” for the genetic modification of the mustard, a diverse crop that is also native to India. Claims of higher yield have been questioned, since the crops used to compare the yield were not suited for the purpose.
Mustard has a small seed and sticky pollen, which gives it the potential to disperse far. In her petition, she explained that India’s biodiversity was at stake; “if the GM ‘genie’ escapes, it cannot be bottled again.” In a briefing that she prepared for anyone interested, Rodrigues explained that mustard is among the oldest traditional crops of India, with rice, and India is a centre of origin of mustard. The oil is used in Ayurveda, and the monounsaturated oil remains stable under high temperature while used in cooking.
The section on environmental and health harms from the briefing Rodgriues prepared is worth quoting in full:
“5. Impacts: Environmental and Health
(a) Contamination is the outstanding concern: The Regulators have paid lip service to the 301 st Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) Report (2017), which states at Pr. 52: “The Ministry informed the Committee that biodiversity preservation is unanimously considered a priority by the scientific community and society at large”; and the NBPGR (National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources) says: “India possesses rich diversity of oilseed brassicas. Brassica rapavar. toria, B. rapavar. brown sarson and B. Juncea considered to be native of Indian gene centre (Arora, 1988)”.
(b) There are two important specifics i.e.: first, mustard like rape more than other crops, has particular potential for wide dispersal through gene flow, insect mediated and wind, (because of its “small seed size and sticky pollen which insects love” - Bayer) To elucidate, the Canadian canola crop (rape) extends over some 5 million hectares, of which roughly 60% is planted with transgenic varieties. But, virtually all canola (97%) is now GM and organic grain farmers in the Prairies have largely stopped growing canola due to high levels of GM contamination. Studies have found that canola pollen can travel nearly 3 km. second, the contamination in the US from a single field trial in 2001 of Bayer Rice LL601 has particular relevance to mustard. Rice is also self-pollinating But mustard outcrosses quite well (18 %+). Contrast this to the large scale BRL trials for HT mustard (2010-2015) and the 5 acre-at-a-time ‘creeping commercialisation’ plan for India.
(c) The proven unsustainability of HT crops: HT crops are proven to be an unsustainable agri- technology. First planted in the US, the country that invented GMOs, US data of HT crops after more than 20 years of commercial planting proves their unsustainability (USDA data 2012: This is also true of the Argentina in the matter of HT soy. This is a failed technology, which spawns super weeds, higher herbicide use and no added performance yield). The US National Academy of Science in 2016, admitted yield stagnation in GM maize, cotton and (HT) soybean (pr.43(b) of IA No. 121953/2018).
(d) The Toxicity of Herbicides used in HT Crops means that they are pesticidal crops: HT crops should be tested as pesticidal crops but are not. The sprays include surfactants that force both weeds and the HT crop to absorb significant quantities of the herbicide that is sprayed on them. The resistant crop stands. Everything else dies including non- target organisms.
(e) Roundup (Glyphosate): The IARC and California Law Suit: In the aftermath of the IARC Report (July 2015) (International Agency for Research on Cancer of the WHO), categorising Monsanto’s 80% brand leader Glyphosate, (considered the safest herbicide in the world) as a “Probable human carcinogen” and “sufficiently demonstrated for genotoxicity (damage to DNA)in animals” (Group 2A, its second highest categorisation, (ref Additional Affidavit of 2015, Annexure P- 3), California’s EPA has labelled Monsanto’s ‘Roundup’ (active ingredient glyphosate), as a ‘known human carcinogen’ under the State’s Proposition 65. “The state based its decision on the findings of the world’s most reliable, transparent and science-based assessment of glyphosate” (i.e. the IARC Report). (Ref Rejoinder of 2017 at pr. 11.3).
(f) California Law Suit finds Monsanto Guilty: The IARC report findings include a linking of glyphosate to Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; and it has now figured prominently in the Dewayne Johnson case, which was brought to trial speedily in May 2018, because he has been diagnosed with terminal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, as a result of spraying the weed-killing pesticide RoundUp Ready. The verdict in this case was announced on 10 August 2018. It found “clear and convincing evidence” that Monsanto’s officials acted with “malice or oppression” in failing to adequately warn of the risks. Monsanto’s secretive strategies were undone by the words of its own scientists, “the damning truth illuminated through the company’s emails, internal strategy reports and other communications”. Monsanto must pay $289 million in damages. The case has opened a Pandora’s Box with 5000 similar law suits waiting in the wings (Application IA No. 121953/2018 at prs. 41 &42).
Update: 2022: There are more than 80,000 case winding their way through US Courts on cancers linked to Glyphosate.
Aruna Rodrigues
(g) Commonality with Petitioners Submissions: It is noteworthy in this connection that Petitioners have insistently prayed for a ban on HT crops for several years, the TEC, appointed pursuant to orders of this Hon’ble Court, having recommended such a ban in 2013. Furthermore, there are specific ‘commonalities’ with the findings of the above legal case and the sheer depth of evidence in Petitioners various Submissions, especially in the wake of the feckless and fraudulent regulatory oversight of HT mustard and its approval now, to commercialise it. For example, the case findings include:
(i) the warning signs seen in scientific research dated back to the early 1980s and have only increased over the decades. But, instead Monsanto worked not to warn users or redesign its products, but to create its own science, designed to appear independent and thus, more credible, to show they were safe and
(ii) how closely the company had worked with the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) officials to promote the safety message and suppress evidence of harm. Petitioners evidence in keeping with the above is that Glyphosate is an endocrine disruptor and causes birth defects; that as in the case of the tobacco lobby, which hid tobacco’s link to lung cancer for 40 years, that similarly Monsanto, and the EPA, have both known for over 30 years that glyphosate and its formulations cause cancer.
(h) Toxicity Specific to Glufosinate Ammonium: Ubiquitous Glyphosate used for over 40 years worldwide, is supposed to be the safest herbicide. Glufosinate is acknowledged as more toxic than glyphosate and like it, is a systemic, broad spectrum, non-selective herbicide (because it kills indiscriminately, soil organisms, beneficial insects etc). It is an acknowledged neurotoxin (causes nerve damage) and birth defects and is damaging to most plants that it comes into contact with. The US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) classifies glufosinate ammonium as "persistent"; and 'mobile'. Studies demonstrate that it causes adverse health effects in animal studies, is likely to leach into drinking water sources, could increase nitrate leaching, and is toxic to beneficial soil micro-organisms. The US EPA has stated that glufosinate is "expected to adversely affect non- target terrestrial plant species". It is banned in Europe and not permitted in India, under the Insecticide Act for mustard. It is an organophosphorus compound (toxic to biology), very similar in structure to glyphosate. Glufosinate “has been clearly implicated in brain developmental abnormalities in animal studies and is very persistent in the environment, so it will certainly contaminate water supplies in addition to food where it will be absorbed. Also the chemicals in the formulation that will be sprayed are known to be toxic. As weeds become more resistant (they will eventually be resistant to all known herbicides)”. Bayer’s data sheet confirms its status as a neurotoxin. (ref. Rejoinder of 2017 pr. 1.4)
Update: The ban in the EU may not now, in 2022 be in force, but indicated in the future. The reports of harm, health and environmental, from Glyphosate have increased substantially and become more serious in the last 4-5 years.
(i) Harm -- Finally Antibiotic Resistance: Prof Jack Heinemann: In view of the importance of this study I’m reproducing sections of the Affidavit without paraphrasing the findings, they are that important. Furthermore, India is reported to have amongst the highest levels of antibiotic resistance in her population, in the world. The impacts then are unacceptably serious.
A peer reviewed study by Jack Heinemann et al titled ‘Exposure to Herbicides can Cause Change in Bacterial Response to Antibiotics’: Sub-lethal exposure to the herbicides dicamba, 2,4-D and glyphosate’, 24 March 2015 published in The American Society for Microbiology. The study found that the most-used herbicides (including Glyphosate) can induce “a multiple-antibiotic resistance phenotype in potential pathogens.” In other words, the use of herbicides can cause bacteria to develop resistance to clinically- relevant antibiotics. The effect occurs upon simultaneous exposure to antibiotics and is faster than the lethal effect of antibiotics. The expression ‘Simultaneous’ has been used to signify that the bacteria need not have had a history of exposure to herbicide to acquire resistance to antibiotics. The resistance can arise immediately. So it can happen if someone is exposed to spray drift, or pets their cat that walked through a treated lawn. Most other forms of antibiotic resistance require some history of exposure before the bacteria are in the human being. For example, penicillin resistant bacteria are resistant because they come from populations of bacteria that arose by mutation and selection for penicillin resistance and then transferred to people. The study therefore, cautioned that “induced response may undermine antibiotic therapy and substantially increase the probability of spontaneous mutation to higher levels of resistance.” [See Annex. P-6 | Add. Affidavit (14.09.2015)]
To reiterate and briefly, no amount of ‘deliberations’ can resolve the problems demonstrated in the risk assessment farm protocols for Mustard, and the known harm that is certain after 25 years of commercialisation in the US, and Argentina. Antibiotic resistance should be the final nail on the coffin on HT crops including Mustard , but a delinquent Regulator is instead working to resurrect it.”
Despite the resistance, the government is pushing ahead. An announcement was made that GM mustard would be planted in the current rabi season in 100 places in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Farmer unions, however, are mobilizing in protest. A press release from the All India Kisan Sabha on October 31, 2022 mentioned that highly toxic herbicides are now more widely used across India. “Multinational agrochemical producers like Bayer, in connivance with a vast network of pesticide dealers, con the farmers into using expensive and extremely toxic pesticides,” the release said, calling on the government for transparency and rigorous scientific evidence to support its claims. “The BJP government must come clear and address all concerns and not rush into any commercial release of GM mustard,” AIKS said.
*Freelance journalist



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