GM mustard developer Deepak Pental accused of manipulating the facts
This is an extraordinary article with multiple revelations – it repays close reading in full.
GM mustard hybrid plagued with technical flaws
Times of India, Mar 3, 2016
Even after Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Union ministry of environment, forests, and climate change has put the commercialization of genetically modified (GM) mustard, Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11, or DMH-11 developed by Delhi University's (DU) former vice-chancellor Deepak Pental on hold for a few months, more skeletons continue to fall from the cupboard. The biggest being that Pental used EH-2 (Early Hira mutant) as one of parents in the experiment to develop one of his hybrids without giving any recognition to the fact that it was developed at Nagpur University.
The DMH-11 hybrid was developed at Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGCMP) in DU, funded by the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) with support from the department of biotechnology (DBT). Scientists claim that while developing the hybrid, CGCMP has not just gone wrong in many technical steps but also hid important facts like not conducting the field trials in a desired way and not putting results of biosafety trials in public domain.
Agriculture scientists across the country told TOI that all the agencies involved in giving clearance to DMH-11 experiment at different stages had supported Pental blindly without giving a thought to ramifications of the experiment on plant sciences. These include the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM), GEAC, NDDB, NIN, and DU. NDDB has specially been pouring in crores of rupees in DU since 1992. While accepting that Pental was a good scientist, everyone expressed shock over the manner in which he manipulated the facts.
Scientists and experts alleged that in the entire development of the DMH-11 technology, these agencies have been hand-in-glove with Pental. It is proved by the fact that ICAR conducted the open field trials at ten locations in country in 2005-06 without approval from the GEAC and RCGM. These locations also included the National Research Centre for Rapeseed Mustard (NRCRM), now called Directorate of Rapeseed-Mustard Research (DRMR) at Bharatpur in Rajasthan.
They claim the former deputy director general of ICAR, E A Sidique, Pental and NDDB officials used their position with ICAR to conduct the trials in open fields which is against environmental norms. The scientific community holds all of them equally responsible as Pental for the mess.
S E Pawar, a BARC scientist from city who was associated as a consultant in the NDDB funded project at NU since 1999 where late Prof Anil Khalatkar was the principal investigator, said Khalatkar had developed EH-2 (early Hira mutant) in NU's Botany Department. This EH-2 was used as one of the parents in the experiment for developing DMH-11 by Pental.
Pawar said Pental and NDDB should have acknowledged the contribution of NU and use of EH-2 as the male parent. He also insisted that while conducting the BRL-I and BRL-II trials, recently released hybrids like DMH-1 and NRCHB-506 should have been used as checks. "I was involved in conducting multi-location trials of DMH-1, DMH-2 and DMH-11. But DMH-11 never out-yielded the national checks," said Pawar. He is also demanding that everyone involved in withholding the actual data and not giving proper information to the GEAC should be taken to task. "I congratulate the MoEF and government of India for not accepting the proposal for commercialization of DMH-11 at this stage," he said.
Meanwhile, Aruna Rodrigues, who has been fighting against GM crops, has filed a PIL for contempt of Supreme Court. She is pleading Supreme Court orders of February 15 and May 8, 2007, April 8, and August 12, 2008, were wilfully and deliberately disobeyed by conducting numerous GM field trials of GM Mustard with the aim of introducing a herbicide tolerant (HT) food crop in India.
Rodrigues added Pental conducted large-scale open field trials. There was a clear, historically proven risk of contamination from limited BRL-I field trials and there was a huge possibility of contamination from large-scale field trials in BRL II. This, she said, was despite the petitioners having a court order against any contamination in a matter of limited or BRL I field trials.
Rodrigues said India was a centre of origin of mustard and there was huge area under the crop here. Mustard is pollinated by wind and insects and the entire mustard crop in India would be contaminated if this new technology was adopted. "Pental has not just hidden the truth, but made statements. This is perjury. He makes claim that DMH-11 provides 25% higher yield than any other variety. He further makes a claim that our import bill for edible oil is astronomical and therefore his mustard is in the national interest because of high yields. These claims are erroneous and misleading," said Rodrigues.
Pental's hybrid at the most can only be as good as the parent lines he is using. However, in order to show his hybrid as superior (made using the Barnase-Barstar system), he used a very old and straight variety Varuna for comparison instead of comparing with a hybrid. This Rodrigues insisted was a clear fraud. "Our modern varieties and hybrids provide yields comparable to what he has produced. Hence there is no need at all for GM mustard. So there is the huge cover-up and official support to that cover-up by regulators, the ICAR, the Department of Biotechnology or DBT," she said.
The reason why we have high imports has more to do with low import tariffs on edible oil and toeing the WTO line and thereby disadvantaging Indian oilseed farmers. Until about two decades back India was self-sufficient. "Pental is neither addressing the real problem nor presenting true analysis. He is indulging in mischief instead," she added.
Interestingly, the reports of All India Coordinated Trials in rape seed mustard (available with TOI) also confirm the claims of scientists and organizations standing against the commercialization of GM mustard. Sources in the DRMR Bharatpur revealed that in all trials (BRL I and BRL II) were conducted at 13 locations but at many places the farmers destroyed the crop, some places the trials were stopped for other reasons. Last year, permission was sought in 12 states for trials but except for Delhi and Punjab none gave permission. Delhi has no place for trials and Punjab contributed just 0.6% of production. The average yield as per the project report obtained in DMH-11 is 23.9 quintals per hectare which is as good as or even less than those of existing non-GM hybrids used as a national check. Sources also confirmed the claim of scientists and activists that Pental had used a very weak variety (not hybrid) for comparison and his claim of 25% higher yield was spurious.
The deputy director general of ICAR J S Sandhu admitted to TOI that ideally experts from bodies like the ICAR, RCGM and national institutes working in GM technology should have been consulted or involved in the experiments but DU worked in isolation which was not good science. "The experiment should have used appropriate checks which I gather were not done," he said.
GM mustard DHM-11 has also received objections and protests from organizations like Coalition for a GM-free India, Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, different state governments like Bihar, Rajasthan, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh. Bihar CM Nitish Kumar and deputy CM of Delhi Manish Sisodia have already written to Prakash Javadekar, the union minister for environment, forest, and climate change.
However Pental claimed he had followed all rules and regulations stipulated in development of a GM crop and conducting trials. He said the data on biosafety was never to be shared in public domain. It had been given to the right authority, the GEAC. On comparing a hybrid with a straight variety, Pental said those who were raising this question were foolish as he had used the methodology used elsewhere in the world. "Hybrids are always known to outperform a variety. I have just developed a system of hybrid making. It can be used for incorporating other properties like disease resistance in mustard or other crops. I cannot convince the anti-GM lobby as it has its own belief system," he said.
* GM mustard DMH-11 hybrid has been developed using Barnase-Barstar system. Barnase gene has been isolated from Bacillus amyoliquefacein bacteria, a soil bacterium
* In the process of development of hybrid DMH-1 and DMH-11, a transgenic hybrid, one of the Nagpur University mutant (EH2- early Hira 2 developed by Late Anil Khalatkar) was used by Pental in developing DMH-1 without giving any credit to the University. The EH2 had the property of higher yield so he used it as a parent to develop these hybrids
* Production of DMH-11 hybrid developed by Pental requires spray of herbicide Barstar which increases the production cost manifold
* There was virtually no need for a GM hybrid in mustard as the existing hybrids (DMH-1 developed by Pental himself with support from NDDB), NRCHB 506, Coral 432 and Coral 437 commercialized by both public and private sector are available and are much cheaper.
* Instead of comparing the DMH-11 with existing high yielding hybrids for yield evaluation, Pental compared it with weak checks of straight variety Varuna, Maya and RL-1359 which is scientifically incorrect
* Trials of BRL-I (confined trials) and BRL-II were approved by RCGM and GEAC without proper control
* The nutritional biosafety and cattle feeding studies conducted by the National Institute for Nutrition (NIN) Hyderabad have not been disclosed in public domain.
* The seed weight of DHM-11 is around 3.3 to 3.5 gm/1000 seeds (due to very small seed size, which is not preferred by farmers) whereas that of other new released varieties and hybrids is 5.5 to 6.5 gm/1000 seeds.
* The DHM-11 has not been developed for any specific trait like any disease and pest resistance. There is no advantage in DMH-11 of higher yield. Hence no rationale for the crop
* Unfavourable data while preparing the DMH-11 hybrid has been purposely omitted in the reports submitted to GEAC
* Glufosinate (Basta), a herbicide used for seed production of DMH-11 is very harmful for environment. Its use will increase if this technology is commercialized. It is more harmful than the commonly used glyphosate which has been declared a cancer causing agent by the leading International Cancer Institute (IARC) of the WHO.
The actual experiment — Seed production technology
DMH-11 was developed by using the genetic male sterility system using following process
* Barnase gene was introduced into the Female parent Varuna, a variety
* EH-2 of Nagpur University in which the Barstar (the herbicide resistant) gene was introduced was used as a male parent
* Female Varuna is heterozygous and segregates into 50:50 male fertile and male sterile while production of hybrid seeds
* To destroy the fertile plants, Basta herbicide is sprayed. With this, technically 100% plants will not be destroyed in the field. Repeated spraying is needed which increases the cost of seed production and makes the entire process very expensive. If fertile plants remain in the field, the required hybrid vigour will not be achieved in hybrid seeds
* In Barnase-Barstar system used in this technology, genetic male sterility system is used. This has failed in other field crops like pigeon pea (ICRISAT Hyderabad experiment) but no lessons have been learnt from it.