Should We Await Tests on Honeybees and Pollinators Before Consuming GM Mustard?

Prof. Deepak Pental with GM mustard hybrids at Delhi University South Campus. Photo by Vivian Fernandes

Did the regulator for GM plants make haste in recommending the release of a genetically modified (GM) mustard hybrid? Last month, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) advised the release of Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11) for seed production on the condition that its impact on honeybees and other pollinators be undertaken post-release to gather scientific evidence under Indian agro-climatic conditions and as a precautionary mechanism.  Should it have got the studies done first?

This is not the first time that GEAC has recommended environmental release of DMH-11, named after the National Dairy Development Board’s Operation Dhara, which was a programme initiated by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to enable India to achieve self-sufficiency in cooking oil by restricting imports. NDDB and the Department of Biotechnology had funded the development of the hybrid.

In May 2017 GEAC advised release of the hybrid after satisfying itself that it posed little risk to humans, animals, and the environment. But then environment minister Harsh Vardhan had not accepted the recommendation. Instead, he wanted impact studies on honeybees and pollinators to be done before release.

More than five years later, the GEAC has affirmed its decision. The central government has not said that it has accepted or rejected GEAC’s recommendation. Approval is supposed to be presumed from the assent by the environment minister of the GEAC’s minutes recommending the release, and a letter issued by the ministry to the developer of the hybrid, Deepak Pental, permitting seed production.

During these five and half years the developer did not undertake impact studies on honeybees and pollinators. Pental, who was vice-chancellor of Delhi University (DU), and his team at DU’s Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP) were not hopeful of the hybrid being released given ideological opposition within the government. The ruling party’s affiliates in the Sangh Parivar – the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and the Bharatiya Kisan Union were also opposed and have reiterated their opposition.

Before the GEAC made its recommendation in 2017, the developers of the hybrid had given a 3,285-page dossier on its bio-safety risk assessment. A condensed version was placed on the GEAC’s website for public comments. It said “[E]xposure of honey bees to barnase and barstar proteins is highly unlikely and therefore risk to honey bee population due to cultivation of DMH 11 hybrid is considered negligible.”

Barnase is a gene derived from a soil bacterium that is used to make pollen in mustard flowers unviable so they can be fertilised with the pollen of another plant of interest.  DMH-11 is a cross between Varuna, a high-yielding Indian mustard variety and Early Hira-2, an East European variety. To create the hybrid, the pollen of Varuna was degraded with a barnase gene. It was then fertilised with the pollen of Early Hira 2, which had a barstar gene derived from the same soil bacterium to reverse the action of the barnase gene and make the resultant seed fully fertile. In trials, the hybrid was found to be 28 percent higher yielding than Varuna. Mustard is largely self-pollinating. Its flowers have both male and female sexual organs.

After the GEAC’s 2017 decision, Pental had told this correspondent that nectaries of GM mustard were fully developed, and they were found to be full of pollen during the trials that were conducted in Delhi, Punjab and Rajasthan in 2010-11, 2011-12 and 2014-15.  DMH-11 has a thicker canopy and more branches, which means more flowers – and more attraction to honeybees.

In his presentation to the GEAC in August based on a review of studies on the subject, Pental said Canada, the US and Australia had not imposed any conditions when releasing GM canola (or rapeseed), which is related to Indian mustard, in 1996, 2002 and 2003 respectively. So, there is a history of safe use.

Pental said a 2003 study carried out on honeybees feeding on field-grown Basta- resistant rapeseed containing the pat gene showed no difference in bee behaviour and foraging activity on transgenic and non-transgenic plants. DMH-11 has the bar gene – functionally equivalent to the pat gene – for tolerance to the Basta herbicide. The bar gene is paired with barnase and barstar genes. This is to ensure purity in the male and female parental lines. When sprayed with Basta only those plants that express the bar gene (and the barnase and barstar genes) will survive.

Pental also told GEAC that a study from China had reported that the bacteria, from which the barnase and barstar genes are derived, were found to be most prevalent in the ‘honey stomach’ of the bee Apis mellifera, a European species imported and preferred in India for their high yield.

Pental says barnase and barstar proteins are not present in mustard oil cake. In biosafety trials, traces of the bar protein degraded within 30 seconds in simulated gastric juice (found in the human stomach) whose main ingredient is the enzyme pepsin. This is a standard test for human digestibility.

Is GM mustard oil safe? Oils do not contain proteins as they are fatty acids. High temperatures during the solvent extraction process will degrade even those that are present.

In 2018 when a non-governmental organisation had raised an alarm over imports of food containing GM material, this correspondent had spoken to Lalitha Gowda, who was chief scientist of the Mysuru-based Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) till 2014 (and thereafter a member of various committees of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India). Gowda said she had tested oil samples sent to her by GEAC. The first such test was in 2007 when the Solvent Extractors’ Association (SEA) had applied for blanket permission to import oil from soybean containing foreign herbicide-tolerance (HT) and insect-resistance (IR) genes. Gowda said the foreign proteins were either absent or in non-detectable traces in the samples she had tested. “We could not get DNA from refined oil. It was impossible to obtain DNA or protein. We said it was not absent, but it was not detectable.” This is recorded in the minutes of GEAC’s June 2007 meeting giving import approval to SEA.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court stayed the environment ministry’s order till November 10 on a petition against its release citing herbicide tolerance as a reason. The soybean and canola oil that India imports are almost all from herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant GM soybean and canola. The herbicide Basta has a history of 30 years of safe use. In India, a root parasite called Orobanche infests the mustard-growing areas of Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and even Assam. It drains the mustard plant of nutrients when it is in the flowering stage. The only way to contain the weed pest is through genetic modification. “To save mustard we must save it from Orobanche,” says P K Rai, Director of the Directorate of Rapeseed-Mustard Research, Bharatpur.

(Top photo of Deepak Pental with GM mustard hybrids at Delhi University South Campus by Vivian Fernandes)

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