NEW DELHI: P. Pardha Saradhi is a Professor in Environmental Studies at University of Delhi. After attaining stature of first team in the world to successfully develop transgenic Indian mustard genotypes through genetic transformation, his team was also successful in developing other transgenic crop plants, viz. chickpea, sorghum, tomato and rice, with enhanced tolerance to salt, water and temperature stresses. The Citizen’s INDRA SHEKHAR SINGH speaks to the professor on a host of issues:

TC: What happened in November 2014, that lead to Deepak Pental’s Arrest?

PPS: Deepak Pental was taken into custody for disobeying 1989 Rule - The Manufacture, Use, Import, Export, and Storage of hazardous Micro-organisms/ Genetically Engineered Organisms or Cells under Environment (Protection) Act 1986. His team member (co-accused) in connivance with him had taken away seeds of transgenic Indian mustard genotypes that we developed at Jamia Milllia Islamia (JMI) without our consent or any MoU. This accounts to stealing of sensitive transgenic material from my lab transgressing all biosafety norms.

Secondly, progress report of a DST project under taken by co-accused under the mentorship of Mr. Deepak Pental shockingly and unethically reflected that the GM mustard research carried out by our research team at JMI lab between ’96-99 was carried by his team between 2000-2004 at Delhi University South Campus. Our publications in peer-reviewed International journals clearly reflect that we are the first in developing Indian mustard genotypes. You can see our publications in Molecular Breeding and Plant Science or see the Project progress report with the authorities. Both are public documents.

TC: Having worked on GM mustard, could you tell us, a little about the Barnase/barstar/bar gene system? And maybe who owns the patent for this system?

PPS: This system consists of three bacterial genes, barnase gene produces an enzyme that destroys RNA, barstar gene produces an inhibitor that inhibits the activity of this enzyme and bar gene, which is used as a marker gene, produces an enzyme that imparts herbicide resistance. Deepak Pental’s team used these genes for raising Indian mustard hybrids. This system is nothing new and know for generating hybrids since 1992. There is nothing new about the hybrid seed production , we were taught about non-GM methods of heterosis breeding in school over forty years ago.

Barnase/barstar/bar system has been used for hybrid seed production in plants like canola i.e. Brassica napus for the first time by Belgium scientists and initially patent were files and owned by Plant Genetic System, Belgium and to the best of my knowledge patents on application of barnase, barstar and bar for hybrid seed production are owned by Bayer Cropscience, Belgium.

I have reports stating that Bayer’s application for trials of Indian mustard (B. juncea) hybrid with barnase-barstar-bar genes has been rejected way back in 2002 by DBT (Govt. of India). Bayer’s B. juncea hybrids with barnase-barstar-bar system exists. I also wish to bring to the knowledge of GEAC, funding agencies, researchers, farmers and general public that the scientists (Dastdar and Varma) of Proagro-PGS India Ltd. (Gurgaon, India) had cultivated transgenic Indian mustard with Barnase-Barstar-Bar genes under limited field-trials during 1995-96 with prior permission (Permit no. 8T/BS/01 /004/Dt. Aug.'94). from DBT (Govt. of India).

After a lapse of 20 years, we are talking about the use of same three gene (barnase-barstar-Bar genes) system. Why didn’t DBT promote this system 20 years back? Obvious reason must be due to its negative impact and experts that time must have had integrity and respect for the Nation without any selfish motive. Let is stop copying ideas and wrongly project as if there is some novelty and entire technology has been developed by Mr. Pental & his team.

In fact, Bayer’s does own the patents.

I am doubtful if the Delhi University, has patents on these systems. We may also discover that if Pental’s mustard is released a company may come forward and claim IPR on it.

I also question, why Indian scientist are using foreign systems and not promoting indigenous research.

TC: Does the Basta gene in the GM mustard make it herbicide tolerant?

PPS:Yes it makes it herbicide tolerant. We have to be very careful regarding the mode of application and the quantity herbicide to be used by the Indian farmers. The public believes that Monsanto and Bayer’s are trying to promote and popularise use of herbicide just to enhance their sales and it is true that sales of herbicides are growing. Farmers will be forced to the buy and spray herbicide if GM mustard is released. Now how this “herbicide” impacts other plants, animals, micro-organism and further how will it harm human health is still to be answered. They may claim that probably that the herbicide will be used only at the time of breeding and not otherwise, but I highly doubt it. I see a number of applications on herbicide tolerant GM crops pending for decision on their commercial release before GEAC.

TC: Are Indian farmers ready for GM mustard?

PPS: Absolutely no. I have already elaborated on various negative impacts of GM-hybrid, DMH-11. India must put a ban on commercial release of GM-hybrid, DMH-11.

We should also think about contaminations. What happens when native varieties of mustard get contaminated who will be liable for it? Should government of India take responsibility or Deepak Pental or members of GEAC? We should also ask Pental whether GM mustard destroys agricultural biodiversity and what impact it has on below ground biodiversity of Flora and Flauna. I do not trust blind statements made in the report regarding rhizosphere microbes.

TC: Should Indian consumers be concerned?

PPS: Well they should be very much concerned. They should ensure that necessary allergenicity tests have been conducted.

The “4000 page safety document”, which Pental claims to have prepared is still hidden, and believe me the MNCs will be waiting to publish the document, if the data is reliable as it would benefit them more than farmers and general public of India. After all many of their applications on release of herbicide resistant crop plants are in pipeline. Increase in sale of herbicides like basta/glyphosate will benefit MNCs, but at the cost of health of humans and environment.

TC: What are the alternatives?

PPS: The best alternative is to promote researchers to develop non-GM hybrid Indian mustard. Funding agencies (in particular DBT, ICAR etc.) must promote Indian mustard breeders and related researchers to produce non-GM Indian mustard hybrids. As per some authentic reports, NRCPB and other agricultural institutes have number CMS as well as restorer lines that can be used for raising ideal non-GM Indian mustard hybrids. Indian Agricultural scientists have already come out with relatively good non-GM Indian mustard hybrids such as NRC Sankar Sarson, Coral 432 and even VEH2-F1. As per the reports available, these hybrids also show significant enhancement in productivity (30-60% increase in productivity).

For the science part I can say that researchers could look for natural genomes. Give importance biodiversity. We should protect biodiversity hotspots and pick up the varieties that are naturally resistant to pathogens and use them.

We should not tamper with natural evolution process. GM technology may accelerate or destroy natural evolution, in particular co-evolution.