» Business » The desi genetic engineer and his fine crop of mustard

The desi genetic engineer and his fine crop of mustard

By Shekhar Gupta
Last updated on: September 21, 2016 12:45 IST
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GM is already in our food chain for years. The approval for indigenous GM mustard should put fake fear-mongering to rest, says Shekhar Gupta.


If you want to see how some of the issues most vital to us and our future generations are debated in a vacuum -- of facts -- please take a short journey with me to University of Delhi’s South Campus. at the north-western edge of Rao Tula Ram Marg, just before the more famous Springdales School.

It is even challenging to reach there now. The road has been dug up for our long-delayed Metro Phase-III and if you come in from the Ring Road side, as you normally would, you will have to walk about a kilometre past many stinking garbage heaps (normal for Delhi) and wade through piles of posters in this university election week.

It’s a beautiful, quiet, leafy and serious campus and houses, among others, possibly one of the most important research laboratories in our country, at the biotechnology centre.

It is a tiny lab, just one wing of a floor of no more than, may be 10,000 sq ft, housing about two dozen researchers, aged between 22 and 65, working on that technology so dreaded in urban legends and Frankenstein-ish scare-mongering -- genetically modified crops. Of course, the scientist who heads it, Professor Deepak Pental, insists that the description “genetically modified” is misleading. He prefers "genetically engineered” or GE, instead of GM.

But distorted popular nomenclature is the least of his problems when he, and his core team of five other giants of genetic research and plant-breeding in India savour a moment of joy and relief, with the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee clearing their labour of 32 years, genetically engineered (or modified) mustard safe on all parameters.  

The seed has been ready since 2002, says Mr Pental, and then there’s been this never-ending fight with science-sceptics and naysayers.

“This should set doubts at rest,” he says, pointing to the 4,000-page report in five spiral-bound volumes, loaded with safety data on all requisite parameters that the team submitted to the GEAC. He is philosophical about not just the doubts and scepticism, but abuse and calumny he has faced including, as he reminds me, wild charges of plagiarism, anything that will trip his quest.

GM crops, as we know, is a highly politicised and emotional issue, one where peer-reviewed facts usually fade in the face of totally imaginary and unproven fears that unite the ideologues of the Left and the Right. Or holy Greenpeace to holier Swadeshis of the RSS.

In the fuel-mix driving the activist engine, one of the most important is the fear of the foreign. That GM seeds are developed by evil, rapacious multinationals with patented, proprietary technologies and gene-stocks, terminator seeds, enabling them to monopolise supplies and prices, making poor-country farmers slave to them.

This mustard has been fully developed and owned by a public lab funded only by government agencies, notable among them being late Verghese Kurien’s National Dairy Development Board, who took a fancy to Rajiv Gandhi’s national oil seeds mission.

India has always been -- and is -- woefully short of edible oils and imports large volumes annually. Mustard constitutes about a third of all oil crops in India, and a seed that will now increase its yield by 25-30 per cent, besides other positive attributes, was just a dream when the NDDB decided to fund a lab led by a still young scientist, Deepak Pental, in 1987 (Disclosure: Mr Pental and I are both alumni of Panjab University, Chandigarh, and stayed in the same hostel, although he was a few years my senior). 

Mr Pental, a botanist, did a PhD from Rutgers and fell in love with sarson (mustard) during a research and teaching stint in Poland. He worked on crossing a Polish variety with the Indian one through the normal hybridisation (cross-pollination) route. It was near impossible. Mustard flower is what botanists would call hermaphrodite, in that it contains both male and female organs which self-pollinate before you can take any external sperm to them.

What if, he thought, he could fully suppress the male element (I am consciously using simplistic language instead of jargon), so he could render one variety female and cross-pollinate it with the other?

Genetic engineering was a very new and exciting science then. Prof Pental and his core team of modestly-paid Delhi University scientists took up the challenge. The route they pursued was to insert three new genes into our own desi mustard, Barnase, Barstar and Bar. The first two are derived from a common soil bacterium and the third from a species of Streptomyces, all totally harmless (or non-pathogenic). There are, by the way, more than 85,000 genes in mustard.

The group of researchers has huddled together, from their youth to ripe ages now, publishing more than 40 research papers in top peer-reviewed journals, producing dozens of young PhDs (the current crop of PhD scholars still form the bulwark of the lab), and now this wonderful seed. Each one tossed much greater allurements, private sector jobs, foreign universities and simple old bureaucratic power in their scientific curiosity and quest.

Mr Pental rose to be a distinguished vice-chancellor of Delhi University, but never left his lab, and returned to it full-time after his stint.

We mourn together the decline of indigenous science through the decades, flight of talent, our dependence on vital products patented and milked by other countries. He says one of the big problems is that our scientists give up research once they get a top job. Or, become what he calls “science-bureaucrats”, vice-chancellors, directors and so on.

He was offered a membership of UPSC -- a terrific five-year sinecure -- but he turned it down to rededicate his life to his favourite mustard. Never mind, he didn’t know then he was losing an opportunity to rub shoulders with eminences like former Delhi police commissioner B S  Bassi.

Here's a top scientist saying the prime minister's target of doubling farmers' incomes in six years is not hype. You can treble or quadruple it, he says, but embrace science.

Will  these scientists eat their own mustard and feed it to their children? They say absolutely, from the day it is approved. All toxicity and allergenicity studies have shown no harm.

Globally, trillions of GM meals have been consumed without any documented, peer-reviewed case of harm, leave out the urban legends. Among the first GM crops to be approved was canola, a modified mustard, in Canada in 1996. India imports nearly 300,000 tonnes of it annually, and nobody is complaining.

A bulk of our edible oil and vanaspati cocktails consist of imported soybean oil, about three million tonnes every year, and all of it is GM. We eat plenty of our own cotton seed (binola) oil, and most of our cotton is now GM/Bt. Almost every Indian has been eating GM oils for years now and nobody protests, or can protest because nothing else is available.

The US, Canada, Latin America, most of Africa and China have embraced genetic engineering. Even if we still wanted to “protect” ourselves by being like the Europeans (who are rich enough to afford their stupidity), that train left the station with so much GM oil already being in our food chain.

Or, all right, you can take Ramdev’s advice and consume only desi ghee made of the most venerable desi cow’s milk. You can still be sure it would have eaten plenty of binola-based feed which gives the milk its fat content, and it is tough to find any binola in India now that isn’t Bt.

Eggs and chicken? Poultry feed has GM maize.

Of course we can still be stupid. We are a sovereign country and our current discourse is Luddite, lazy, anti-science and doesn’t want to be confused with facts.

The Chinese, meanwhile, are not concerned. They are spending $43 billion (about Rs 2.9 lakh crore) to buy Syngenta, the world’s third-largest crop-science/GM research company (while the largest, Bayer, has bid $65 billion for Monsanto).

Mr Pental says they want his mustard, developed at the cost of Rs 50 crore ($7 million) of taxpayers’ money -- they’ve also been crediting his team in their papers. They want it because it is also drought-resistant.

They don’t eat mustard oil, nor do they need it for maalish. Remember, almost all Chinese greens essential to their cuisine, Bok Choy, Choi Sum, Gan Lang and Chinese long-leaf cabbage are siblings in the same mustard family.

I suppose this leaves us something to chew on.

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