C Kameswara Rao

Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, Bangalore, India

In consideration of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed on May 1, 2006, seeking a ‘ban on the release of genetically modified organisms/seeds having the potential of causing major health hazards’, the Supreme Court of India  (SCI) directed the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) on September 22, 2006, not to give new approvals to genetically modified products until further orders.   On October 13, 2006, the SCI, however, permitted the University of Delhi, South Campus (UDSC) to go ahead with field trials of a genetically engineered (GE) variety of mustard. 

The Petitioner of the PIL has vehemently reacted alleging that the UDSC ‘may have suppressed important scientific information’, and that this ‘has consequently undermined and compromised a critical bio-safety order of the Court’.   A number of issues were raised, with little evidence of understanding the science and modern technology behind developing hybrid Brassicas.  The allegations of the Petitioner were widely reported in the Press and are likely to mislead the public.   It is necessary that the entire background of cultivation of Brassicas, the problems in producing conventional hybrids among them, the importance of the recent technology used, and the irrelevance of the allegations made by the activists, are made known to the public.  

Cultivated Brassicas:

Brassica is a group of species of the mustard family Brassicaceae, which are an important source of edible and industrial oil, condiment and vegetables.   Utilizing variation in their economical and nutritional trains, both from natural mutations and natural hybridization and induced mutations and artificial hybridization, agricultural scientists and farmers have developed a very large number of cultivated varieties in different parts of the world, which resulted in a perennial disagreement on their scientific classification and naming.   It may be convenient to use the popular names of the crops but it is essential to use the scientific names in the interests of accuracy in international communication, quality control and Intellectual Property Rights.  The scientific names given below were taken from a recent review of the taxonomy of the Brassica group of crops.

Oil seeds

a)     Canola, Oil rape:  Varieties of the Brassica rapa (Oleifera group) are the main source of oil, but the varieties of the Napus and Campestris group (Bird rape) may also be used for oil extraction.  

b)     Oil mustard: In India, canola is uncommon, but other species such as Brassica juncea, Brassica nigra and Sinapis alba are widely used for oil extraction.

Condiment seeds

a)     Black mustard: Brassica nigra

b)     White mustard: Sinapis alba, subspecies alba (same as Brassica alba) (used as a condiment, in pickles and sauces and to temper food)

Leafy vegetables

a)     Brown mustard, Leaf mustard, Baaraalai, Raai, Pahadee Raai: Brassica juncea subspecies integrifolia (same as Brassica juncea var. rugosa and Brassica rugosa).

b)     Brown sarson, Kaali sarson, Indian rape: Brassica rapa (same as Brassica campestris)

c)     Raai/Sarson: Brassica rapa (Trilocularis group)(Yellow sarson, Indian Colze, Peeseeraanee, Peesee sarson, Raanee sarson)

The mustard greens called sarson, used as a vegetable in India , are different from the seed varieties grown for oil and condiment purposes.

Root vegetable

Turnip:  Brassica rapa var. rapa.

Non-mustard vegetables:

Cabbage, cauliflower, knolkohl, broccoli, Brussels’ sprouts and related group of vegetables are different varieties of Brassica oleracea.   Radish is Raphanus sativus, also included in the family Brassicaceae.  All these are cultivated in India .

Rapeseed oil and Canola:

Rapeseed seed oil is used extensively as an industrial lubricant in the temperate countries and is now seriously considered as a source of biodiesel.   It is not suitable for human consumption, as it has an unacceptable sharp taste due to the presence of glucosinolates (500 μ mol/g) and greenish colour.   Rapeseed oil is toxic to humans and animals as it contains over 60 per cent erucic acid (over 60 per cent), suspected to cause several ailments including cancer.  The seed meal was also not palatable to the livestock. 

Canola is the acronym for the Canadian Oil Low Acid crop, developed in 1974, by the Canadian plant breeders from the oil seed rape, genetically modified by conventional techniques, to make it fit for human consumption.  Canola is very low in erucic acid (about one per cent), and glucosinolates (30 μ mol/g).   It is considered a healthy edible oil as it contains about 70 per cent of monounsaturated fatty acids such as oleic acid, more than most other edible oils.  Canola seed cake can be used as cattle and poultry feed.

During the last decade, GE varieties of canola for resistance against pests, diseases, drought and herbicides, were developed, though only pest and herbicide resistant varieties have come to be commercialized.

Reproductive biology of Brassicas:

Wild species of Brassica have genetically determined self-incompatibility factors that prevent the male cells of a flower from fertilizing the female cells of the same flower (true self pollination), while this is easy between flowers of neighbouring plants of the same variety (cross pollination).   However, during domestication and centuries of cultivation this has changed considerably and the extent of cross pollination is usually only 20 to 30 per cent.  

Different varieties of Brassica oleracea used as vegetables as mentioned above, are inter-fertile.   Nevertheless, farmers had no difficulty in maintaining them distinct without loss of their identity.

Brassica flowers are honey flowers, visited by bees, which are the pollinators.   People who understood the behaviour of honeybees appreciate the fact that pollen are not carried by bees beyond 15 to 20 meters, away from the crop fields.   Pollen may also be airborne.   Much depends upon the temperature, rain or humidity, flowering stage and other related factors.

December 2, 2006