Wednesday, September 18, 2002


Suman Sahai

Viewing the impending release of Aventis/ Proagro’s GM mustard variety by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) with great concern, Gene Campaign today demanded that all data pertaining to the field trials of the this GM mustard be made available to the public. There are very serious charges of irregularities being discussed in the scientific community about the bogus nature of the trials conducted by Aventis/Proagro, the high levels of genetic contamination of non-GM mustard varieties and a less than above board approach to securing a favourable verdict for the release of transgenic mustard. These charges must be either admitted or refuted by the company.

Aventis/Proagro’s transgenic mustard is completely unsuited and irrelevant to India because it contains the barnase-bar-barstar genes. Barnase -barstar -bar genes are used in Canada to work specifically with herbicide tolerance. That situation does not obtain in India, so what is the point of using these genes here ?

Bar is a herbicide tolerant gene, barnase is an RNAse gene and can destroy any cell unless controlled. It is known for ‘leaky expression’, which can create unwanted changes, morphological malfunctions and even reduced yields.

1.Most importantly, the efficacy and performance of the Aventis hybrids under trial has been called into question. These varieties do not perform as well as existing Indian varieties , thus giving the farmer absolutely no advantage . All the advantages go to Aventis which seeks to secure a foothold in the Indian seed market, aided by a compliant and compromised scientific bureaucracy.

Gene Campaign demands :

Make the data available on the performance of the Aventis mustard compared to the best Indian mustard varieties.

2. Food and Feed Safety studies for this GM mustard were done by feeding transgenic seeds and leaves to pigeon and rabbits. The reportedly company supplied both the Samples & Controls- for the tests, making the tests a farce.

Safety tests were conducted in private institutions (FIPPAT - Chennai and Sriram Institute, Delhi) without the participation of government scientists. Food and Feed Safety data were cleared without proper testing in Government Institutions/ labs.

Demand :

Let the testing protocol for Food and Feed Safety tests be made public

Identify the source of samples and controls and the testing locations

Make public the safety data on the basis of which the transgenic mustard is getting clearance.

3. Pollen flow & contamination of non-GM mustard

In ICAR conducted tests last year in Pant Nagar, Ludhiana, Kanpur, Mathura and Jabalpur., pollen flow was detected ( in Pantnagar ) up to 75 m. In other locations, officials of the company are rumoured to have influenced the data and shown it to be less on the records than it was.

Even with evidence of pollen flow of 75m. Isolation distance in the Aventis transgenic trials, are recommended as 50m, ensuring genetic contamination of non GM mustard in neighbouring fields.

Demand – Let pollen flow studies be done by public research scientists monitored by an independent panel.

Test all the non-GM mustard in the vicinity of transgenic trials and make the data public. Assess whether or not/how much contamination has taken place.

Specially - Test Proagro 4001 , a non-GM mustard variety already on the market, for contamination with barnase-barstar genes.

4. What is the rush in giving clearance to Aventis’ mustard when Indian labs are on the threshold of releasing high performance non- GM hybrid mustard varieties.

Promising hybrid mustard varieties are being developed by Dr. R K Katiar in IARI, Dr. Banga in PAU, Ludhiana and Dr.Dhiraj Kumar in HAU. All three labs are very close ( 2-3 years ) from releasing non GM mustard varieties with better performance than the Aventis variety being pushed by the government.

Demand : Let there be an investigation into which people or agencies are behind this relentless support for Aventis’ transgenic mustard , at the cost of superior non- GM Indian varieties.

5. Who has borne the cost of the members of the MEC ( Monitoring and Evaluation Committee ) and the government nominees of the GEAC who are supposed to monitor and evaluate the field trials ? Has the government or other designated agency borne the cost of those sent to monitor and evaluate the performance of Aventis’ transgenic mustard ?

It is rumored that the companies themselves (Aventis for this mustard and Monsanto for

Bt cotton ) have paid for the travel and hospitality of the government nominees of the regulatory committees. Not only is this highly irregular and morally questionable, what is even worse, it is said that members have received substantial honorariums from the companies for doing the evaluation of their field trials.

Demand : Let the GEAC and MEC members give undertakings that the companies did not underwrite any costs for government members and that no honorariums were paid by the company to the government nominees .This is necessary to establish the credibility of the MEC and GEAC.

6. According to the procedure and protocol of testing GM varieties, each agency (government laboratory or private company ) is required to disclose the details of the varieties used in breeding the GM variety. This is called the passport data .

Demand : Let Aventis/ Proagro reveal the passport data of their transgenic mustard under trial and imminent release. Let Aventis/ Proagro and the NBPGR give an undertaking that all varieties used have been deposited with the NBPGR as required.

7. The GM hybrids has not gone through the prescribed procedure of the All India Coordinated Crop trials as crop varieties in India are required to do. In India, all varieties have to undergo rigorous testing in all zones at 40-50 locations and a variety is only notified after this process is completed, a process which lasts over three years. The Aventis/ Proagro mustard has been tested for only one season, in just 4 locations , in a total of 3 zones- and it is ready for release !

8. There is talk that several lines of Indian mustard have been sent to the ProAgro headquarters in Belgium. This is in violation of the law. No genetic material can leave the country without proper procedures and in accordance with the Convention on Biological Diversity . This includes Prior Informed Consent, Material Transfer Agreements and Information Transfer Agreements.

Demand : Let Aventis/Proagro give an undertaking that this is not the case. That Indian mustard germplasm has not been sent by them to the company headquarters in Belgium.

9. There is some talk to be heard in certain quarters about how Aventis/Proagro are ‘buying influence’ in government departments to get a favourable decision for the release of Bt mustard. This kind of talk undermines the credibility of the regulatory procedures and casts a shadow on those involved in the testing, monitoring and release of transgenic crops. In the interests of transparency and above board conduct, rumors of this kind should be firmly rebutted by the company.

Dr. Suman Sahai , Convenor of the Gene Campaign said this cloak and dagger approach to GM crops and Ag –biotech is disgusting and demonstrates more than anything else the immaturity and lack of confidence of the scientific administration . Judging by the stealth and secrecy, it seems that the members of the GEAC and the Department of Biotechnology have a lot to hide. Indeed if proof were needed that the decisions on Bt cotton and now GM mustard are detrimental to Indian interests, and that the data can not withstand public scrutiny, the GEAC provides it in ample measure with its ridiculous, almost criminal obduracy in not making the data public.