Will the genetically modified mustard variety approved by the regulator make history or go down the path of deeply frozen Bt Brinjal? We take a look at the journey of the supposedly first transgenic edible crop in India and what lies ahead
More than a decade after genetically edited brinjal, popularly called Bt brinjal was put under a moratorium, the genetically modified mustard or GM mustard has been finally approved for commercial cultivation by India’s biotech regulator, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC). It’s a sort of deja vu moment as more than a decade ago the Bt brinjal that was supposed to be the country’s first transgenic food crop was thrown into a deep freezer, all thanks to hyper-activism.
In a meeting held on October 18,2022, the top regulatory committee brushed aside concerns that GM mustard could harm honeybees. It recommended the environmental release of the genetically modified (GM) mustard (Brassica juncea) variety DMH (Dhara Mustard Hybrid)-11 for the development of new generation hybrids, paving the way for the commercialization of the country’s first GM food crop.
The GEAC said that the commercial use of DMH-11 hybrids will be subject to the Seed Act, 1966, and related rules and regulations. Genetically modified plants are developed to introduce a new trait to the plant which does not occur naturally. The DNA of the plant is modified using genetic engineering to produce the GM plant varieties which can be grown as food crops or non-food crops.
GEAC approval is conditional
Joint field studies with ICAR to check the effects of GM mustard on honeybees and other pollinators
Not a final approval for commercial release but a step forward
The approval is valid only for the next four years
The approval for commercialization mentioned: “Based on the examination of scientific evidence available globally, and as per the recommendations of concerned ministries, it seems unlikely that the bar, barnase, and barstar system will pose an adverse impact on honeybees and other pollinators. Therefore, the committee was of the view that GEAC may consider the environmental release of GE (genetically engineered) mustard and further evaluation to be carried out as per ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research) guidelines.”
According to South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC), “GM mustard is likely to have beneficial effects on honeybee population based on their relatively enhanced foraging behaviour resulting in increasing honey production and income of beekeepers in mustard growing areas. In GM mustard, hybrid DMH-11 is fully fertile with pollen viability similar to the parental line Varuna and has fully developed nectaries. Around 50-60 per cent of the total production of honey in India is mustard honey, which makes the crop vital for the survival of the honey industry”.
Decoding the technology
Around the same time when Bt Brinjal was under heat, Prof Deepak Pental, former Delhi University vice-chancellor and the scientist behind GM mustard was working on the hybrid varieties called Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11) at his Delhi University laboratory and fields in New Delhi.
Dr Pental and his team improvised on a 1990s breeding innovation pioneered in Belgium called the barnase/barster male sterility technique. The product had three genes – barnase, barster and bar – from rapeseed that had been deregulated for consumption by Canada in 1996, by the US in 2002 and Australia in 2003. Barnase and barster are genes from naturally occurring bacteria. Barnase switches on male sterility, barster switches it back off. In GM mustard, bar was used mainly to help maintain male sterility, ensuring that the variety doesn’t self-pollinate as it usually does. The idea was to prepare mustard for hybridization.
The Winter Crop
Mustard is one of India’s most important winter crops which is sown between mid-October and late November. It is cultivated by around 6 million farmers in around 6.5-7 million hectares of land across the states of Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh. DMH-11 has been shown to deliver 30 per cent higher yields than existing varieties. The average yield of existing mustard varieties is around 1,000-1,200 kilograms per hectare, while the global average is over 2,000-2,200 kgs.
GM mustard had been stuck in the regulatory process after initial approval in 2017. Back then, an expert committee was formed to examine questions and observations by its critiques.
Dr Pental and his supporters in the biotechnology industry have always batted for the technology and its outcomes. They claim that the yield would be much higher and good in quality as compared to the traditional variety.
Welcoming the move, Federation of Seed Industry of India stated, “The approved GM mustard technology will enable us to efficiently breed better hybrids for mustard for increased yields and resistance to diseases. We hope this approval ushers in an era of technology use in seed improvement and agriculture.”
“A landmark decision by GEAC approving the environmental release of GM Mustard developed by Prof Deepak Pental and his group at Delhi University. A major step forward in our technology advancement strategy revolutionizing agriculture,” said Dr Renu Swarup, Former Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, Government of India.
“India approves the environmental release of the genetically modified mustard line, developed by Delhi University. This highly desired move will catalyze crop improvement efforts using high-end science, a much-needed strategy to meet nutritional needs,” mentioned Dr Rakesh Mishra, Director, Tata Institute for Genetics.
“The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee of GOI has cleared the ‘environmental release’ of Genetically Modified (GM) mustard. This should pave the way for release of more such useful GM events in India. A great stride ahead, indeed,” said Dr Sudhanshu Vrati, Director, Regional Centre for Biotechnology, Faridabad.
Fierce opposition from anti-GM groups
In a letter to Bhupendra Yadav, Union Environment Minister, Ashwani Mahajan, Co-Convenor, Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) alleged that the GEAC’s action was not fair. “The regulators are joining hands with GM crop developers and are time and again compromising the regulatory regime quite seriously, and they have done so with this GM mustard also,” he reportedly wrote in the letter.
“Where’s the need for GM mustard in the first instance? Has anyone even proven that point? Hybrids have not reduced edible oil import so far and this GM mustard is ostensibly about hybridization. There is no data to show that GM mustard has yield advantage. So why?,” asks Kavitha Kuruganti, Co-Convenor, Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA).
No easy road ahead
The matter has already reached the country’s biggest court of law, the Supreme Court. The court ordered a status quo on the issue while hearing the matter on November 04, 2022. Subsequently on November 10, 2022, in a surprising move, the government defended its decision to release genetically modified mustard in the SC, saying this will enhance productivity and reduce the dependency on imports.
At present, India meets nearly 55-60 per cent of its edible oil demand through imports, the affidavit by the Environment Ministry stated. It also maintained that opposition to GM seeds is based on unfounded fears which hurts Indian farmers, consumers and the industry.
The GEAC recommendation that has come after a decade has also caught many by surprise, triggering many questions. Does the green signal at regulatory level mean that GM mustard has been okayed unrestricted field cultivation by big wigs at highest levels? Would the current government muster the courage for change in the status quo?
The opposition to GM technology is not new but given the support by the government this time, it would be interesting to see how the GM Mustard story would unfold in near future. However, the ball is in the court of the Union Environment Minister, Bhupendra Yadav who like his predecessors will have to walk on a tightrope. Will he choose to be different is the question only time will answer.
*This story was first published in the ‘Nov 2022’ edition of BioVoice eMagazine.