C Kameswara Rao

Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, Bangalore, India

The success of North America and Australia in developing GE Canola using the barnase/barstar gene system, gave an impetus to develop GE mustards in India .

GE Brassicas in India :

ProAgro a private seed company in India , obtained from Belgium , a high yielding GE mustard based on the barnase/barstar gene system, in 1966.  After several years’ of back crossing with the Indian varieties, ProAgro was permitted by the Review Committee for Genetic Manipulation (RCGM), to conduct field trials at 50 locations in Gujarat, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, with seven entries of three GE test hybrids and four check varieties for comparison.   The field trials were co-ordinated by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), which submitted a report to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC).   However, ProAgro’s application for commercialization of the high yielding GE mustard got caught in procedure and there ever so many new questions each time in the GEAC, leading to protracted delays.    ProAgro got frustrated and withdrew its application.  

Apart from Pro-Agro’s aborted attempt, the following Brassica crops are in development in India :

In collaboration with Monsanto and Michigan State University, and under the support of the United States agency for International Development (USAID), the Tata Energy Resources Institute, New Delhi (TERI), has been developing since 2000, a GE mustard variety with high levels of β-carotene (a precursor of vitamin A), using Monsanto’s technology. 

The Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, is developing a water-stress resistant mustard variety, with genes CodA and Osmotin and one with Bt Cry 1Ac for pest resistance. 

The University of Delhi, South Campus (UDSC) and the National Research Centre for Weed Science, Jabalpur, are using the barnase/barstar system to improve the yield in mustard.   On October 13, 2006, the Supreme Court of India permitted the UDSC to go ahead with field trials, an exception to its earlier directive to the GEAC to stop new field trials until further orders.

Bt Cry1Ac containing pest resistant varieties are being developed in cauliflower (Mahyco and Sungrow Seeds) and cabbage (Sungrow Seeds).

ProAgro’s field data:

The aborted attempt of ProAgro in commercializing a high yielding GE mustard has, however, provided extensive field data that can be of immense use to others in the field.

Pollen drift and gene flow in GE varieties:

Cross pollination studies were conducted in Haryana for two seasons (2001 and 2002), on the Indian GE mustard by ProAgro.  The RCGM reported that the extent of gene flow was assessed on the basis of the percentage of survivors on spraying the herbicide Basta, on the border rows of about 2500 non-GE mustard plots.   It was reported that the mean survival, an indicator of gene flow, was 0.1 per cent at five meters, 0.02 per cent at 10 meters and zero anywhere from 15 to 150 meters.   The conclusion is that the risk of gene flow from GE to non-GE mustard was minuscule and has no significant biological or environmental impact.

Pollen drift becomes significant, only if the drifted pollen were viable, produced viable seed that resulted in fertile offspring.   Mere pollen drift does not mean gene transfer.   Even if there was gene flow, it is of no consequence because the introduced gene system, where herbicide resistance gene is linked with male sterile plants, causes production of only sterile pollen incapable of fertilization.   A two-year study of herbicide tolerant canola from Australia (Science, 2002) confirmed this.   The prescribed acceptable levels of GE component in non-GE canola seeds (less than one percent), has never been crossed.

Seed and oil yield of GM mustard in field trials:

In 2002, the RCGM reported that ProAgro’s test hybrids yielded 19 to 24 per cent more seed, containing about 15 per cent more oil, than the check varieties.    

December 2, 2006