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Why GM Mustard is Bad for India

By Dr. Ashesh Tayal
Greenpeace India
February 24, 2003

Few crops have as many links to Indian life and cuisine as mustard. An important ingredient for seasoning, mustard (sarson) is also used as edible oil and in popular dishes like 'sarson ka saag'. Risking genetic contamination of such a vital crop at any stage, purely for corporate profits, is unacceptable.

Few crops have as many links to Indian life and cuisine as mustard. An important ingredient for seasoning, mustard (sarson) is also used as a preferred edible oil and in popular dishes like 'sarson ka saag'. Contamination of such a vital crop at any stage has therefore wide repercussions. Public memory of dropsy deaths due to argemone contamination of mustard oil a few years back is still fresh. Yet today, mustard faces the fear of contamination of a different kind, i.e. tampered genes.

Mustard is part of the brassica family of plants which itself comprises around 3000 different species including many cultivated plants like cabbage, cauliflower, radish and many other wild species generally regarded as weeds. Mustard is a source of linoleic and linolenic acideessential fatty acids required by the human body, which are normally absent in other oils. It is also a good source of protein with well-balanced amino acids and minerals and the lowest amount of saturated fatty acids among the vegetable oils.

Rapeseed mustard propagates largely through self pollination. In recent years, 'hybridisation' has been resorted to for increasing yields. 'Joker', 'Pronto', and 'Panther' are famous, non genetically engineered hybrids of rapeseed available in the world market. Thus, enhanced yields have been achieved by such conventional means without genetic engineering.

The corporates pushing genetically engineered (GE) mustard promise a 20% increase in productivity and better oil content over today's levels. This claim is in respect of genetically engineered hybrids. Naturally the genetic modifications come loaded with various environmental risks and health hazards. The genetic modifications introduced are principally to stimulate use of the company's own chemicals.

For example, rapeseed does not compete well with weeds in the early growth stages because it is both slow growing and slow to cover the ground. Therefore farmers use herbicides to overcome this problem. Some transnational corporations have worked on the development of herbicide-resistant GE rape varieties. For example, AgrEvo has the 'Innovator', which is glufosinate-resistant, whereas Monsanto has a glyphosate-resistant variety and Pioneer an imidazolinon-resistant product. These crops allow the use of a non-selective herbicide which kills every plant except those which have a herbicide-resistance genesuited to the companys chemicalsincorporated.

As the genetic engineering process is used, risks and hazards multiply. A fairly significant number of genes are used as 'promoters' and 'markers'. To make the plant resistant to a wide spectrum herbicide, for example, mustard is transformed with at least five different bacterial genes taken from different soil bacteria.

Apart from the above mainframe foreign genes, antibiotic resistant 'marker genes'with no agronomic interest whatsoeverare used to select transformed cells in the crop. These include a gene for resistance to antibiotics Kanamycin and Neomycin, isolated from E. coli, a bacteria usually found in the gastrointestinal tract of warm blooded animals.

Glufosinate is a short name for the ammonium salt, glufosinate-ammonium. Direct ingestion, of glufosinate is toxic and can also be fatal. There is already scientific evidence that glufosinate affects the nervous system; neurotoxicity has been proven in most species of laboratory animals exposed to glufosinate. In rats and mice the symptoms include trembling, irregular breathing and convulsions.

The imported gene transforms the active herbicide glufosinate ammonium into a form that is not toxic to the plant. Thus the plant becomes tolerant to glufosinate. This metabolite however, can be reconverted into the active herbicidal form by micro organisms in the digestive tract of warm blooded animals (Robert-Koch-Institute 1996). This finding may have serious implications for rapeseed users.

The use of Kanamycin and neomycin resistance markers carries a considerable risk. The resistance can be transferred to the intestinal bacteria (for instance, E. coli) of any animal or human eating the GE-plants or products from processed GE-plants. In the event of an infection, the resistance quality can then be transferred to pathogenic bacteria entering the body, making the bacteria resistant to medical treatment with these antibiotics.

Kanamycin is a member of the aminoglycide antibiotics family. These include Neomycin, Streptomycin, Gentamycin, Tobramycin and Amikacin. Kanamycin can be used for the treatment of infections in various parts of the body when penicillin or other less toxic drugs cannot be used because of resistant infectious agents. For example, bone, respiratory tract, skin, soft-tissue and abdominal infections and urinary tract infections can be treated with Kanamycin.

Mustard again is known to have more than 40 relatives. 'Cross pollination' and 'gene jumping' can lead to transfer of these bioengineered genes to sister species like cabbage and cauliflower where the impact of these changes is entirely unknown. Studies have shown that gene dispersal from genetically engineered glufosinate resistant rapeseed to weedy species like B. campestris has occurred under field conditions within just two generations. Research demonstrates that spontaneous hybridisation can occur in the field between oilseed rape and wild radish. Another recent study demonstrated that hybridisation does occur between oilseed rape and hoary mustard.

Thus there is the considerable risk of developing cross-resistance as well. Even one mutation in the resistance gene can pass on resistance to some or all members of the antibiotics family, making them useless for therapy. For instance it was found that B. subtilis, marked by a Kanamycin resistance gene, showed cross resistance to the antibiotics Amikacin and Tobramycin, which belong to the new generation of such antibiotics.

An additional pathway of spreading antibiotic resistance cannot be ignored: the horizontal transfer of transgenes and marker genes has been experimentally proven in the laboratory.

As the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee ( GEAC) sat in a meeting to consider GM mustard cultivation in India, the central question on everybodys mind was: why do we need to go for genetic manipulation of mustard at all? (Please note that no independent scientific evaluation has been carried out of the introduction of BT cropsincluding mustardin the country).

A plethora of questions arise in this context. What will be the health impacts if cross pollination and gene jumping take place from mustard to related species, say cauliflower? What if pathogenic microorganisms turn kanamycin and neomycin resistant? What is the toxicity of glufosinate and how does it affect environmental health and human beings? Are we confident that these genetic manipulations to a food crop are scientifically safe? Most of these questions unfortunately remain unanswered.

Based on the above scientific facts and doubts about safety that they raise, the Norwegian Government has taken a decision to prohibit the import of transgenic oilseed rape because of the presence of antibiotic resistant genes. Clinical antibiotic therapy is already in a bad shape around the world because of an increasing number of pathogens already carrying resistant genes WHO also admits that public health is approaching a major crisis in both developed and developing countries with at least 30 new infectious diseases having appeared, together with the reemergence of old ones, in the past 25 years. This gives significant reason to be cautious in our approach.

We have not even touched upon the environmental hazards of GE mustard or the implications of monopolistic, multinational corporate control over Indian agriculture that will become inevitable with the introduction of EM crops. However, the potential health hazards to a vast number of Indians are adequate to invoke the precautionary principle.

Given all the above factsestablished and demonstrated scientifically in different placesit seems ridiculous that India is considering the introduction of GM mustard. Just a survey of the existing scientific evidence would inform the decision-makers that it would be fatal to approve the release of GM mustard with its predicted effects on a large population of unaware consumers. It is also very unfortunate that neither scientists nor the public have been taken into confidence. What is still worse is the cloud of secrecy over the BE mustard proposal and the way the public is being kept in the dark about necessary field trials and their results.

Dr. Ashesh Tayal is Scientific Advisor to Greenpeace India.

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