GM mustard cleared by GEAC

Reference news

The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), India’s apex regulator for genetically modified seeds, on 11 May 2017 cleared GM mustard (Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11) for environmental release and use in farmers’ fields.

If the Minister’s consent is obtained, GM mustard would be the first transgenic food crop to be allowed for commercial cultivation in Indian farms. It may also be a gateway for several genetically-modified food crops in the country.

Earlier precedent

The recent decision is not the first time the GEAC has cleared a transgenic food crop for release.

Bt Brinjal was cleared by the Committee in 2010 but was blocked by the then Environment Minister, who cited, among other things, a paucity of safety tests. Thus, Bt Brinjal was never released in India.

It was in 2002 that Bt cotton, a non-food crop, was introduced in India by Monsato. It was the first genetically modified crop to be approved for cultivation in the country.

About GM Mustard of India – Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11

Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 or DMH-11 is a genetically modified variety of mustard developed by the Delhi University’s Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants.

The aim of DMH-11 is to exploit heterosis, or hybrid vigour, by crossing the Indian mustard with an East European strain known for its higher yields, and thereby achieve greater productivity.

Unlike other crops – maize, bajra, rice, sunflower and cotton for instance – there are no commercial hybrids for mustard. The reason is simple: mustard is a self-pollinating plant (each mustard flower is a “perfect flower” that contains both male stamen and female pistils and therefore does not require another flower/plant to pollinate). In other words, if a hybrid mustard crop has to be created, it would need to be genetically engineered to enable hybridisation.

This hybridisation is achieved by means of the two genes barnase and barstar, derived from a soil bacterium called Bacillus amyloliquefaciens. Put very simply, the barnase gene confers male sterility to a plant in which it is inserted and enables crossing of the male sterile line with the fertility restorer (barstar gene) line – to produce fertile hybrid plants and seeds.

There is a third gene too – the bar gene The bar gene synthesises an enzyme called PAT, which confers tolerance to glufosinate in a plant. Glufosinate is a broad-spectrum herbicide, which indiscriminately eliminates weeds and any plant that does not incorporate the bar gene and is hence not ‘herbicide tolerant’.

Essentially, this is done to mark out the GM crops from the non-GM progeny.

The ones that are non-sterile hybrids are eliminated with a glufosinate-herbicide spray. This is done in order to ensure that pollen-free, sterile GM crops are grown over successive generations.

The benefits it offers
  • GM Mustard is male sterile due to introduction of a bacterial gene, Barnase. Therefore, it will be easier to cross pollinate and develop new hybrid varieties.
  • GM Mustard will increase yields by 20% – 30% and help lessen India’s dependence on the rising imports of edible oil. India is the world’s second largest consumer of edible oil after China, and 14.5-15.5 million tonnes of the total 20-21 mt annual consumption is imported.
  • GM Mustard is an herbicide resistant variety. It will thus help in better weed management.
  • This oil will have lower saturated fats and will be high on unsaturated ones like MUFA and PUFA. Omega-3 fatty acids will be three times higher, making it highly beneficial, particularly for vegetarians. Likewise, the feed cake, too, would be more nutritious than the traditional mustard oil cake. The cake can also be fed to poultry, alongside cattle.
  • Public ownership of GM mustard technology (by Delhi University and Dhara Vegetable Oil and Foods Company) is one of the main attractions of this technology. So apart from being 20-30% more productive, they will also be cheaper in comparison to the monopoly prices and royalties commanded by trans-national companies like Monsanto for patented monopoly and seeds like Bt cotton.
Why is it controversial?

Issue of biosafety: In India, we use every part of the mustard plant—leaves, seeds and oil. There was a lack of enough data and evidence on bio-safety. Nothing more than basic allergy tests were conducted to declare it as safe by the developer.

Productivity: The developers compared the GM seeds with 40-year-old natural variety of seeds instead of recent ones, which are quite productive. Further, for 25% increase in yield in any crop, there are several traditional methods.

Problem with being herbicide tolerant: It is alleged that developers of GM Mustard intentionally concealed that DMH-11 is an herbicide resistant variety until recently and revealed it only after continuous pressure and opposition.  Herbicides are chemicals used to kill weeds. Herbicide tolerant plants will lead to an increased use of toxic chemicals on plants. This in turn will adversely affect human and animal health as well as the environment. The WHO has called glyphosate a probable human carcinogen. Also, this is a sign that the industry wants to move to the agrochemicals market.

Loss of rural jobs: There are several socio-economic impacts of introducing an herbicide tolerant crop variety. A significant portion of the unorganised sector in India, especially rural women, is involved in manual weeding. On one hand we have the MNREGA to increase employment, and then we push technology that will take away jobs.

Other problems: Nearly 50-60 % of the honey produced in India is through mustard crop and the GM crop is also facing resistance from honey makers in India, who state that the technology will harm honey bees.

Lack of transparency: Activists allege that the research has been conducted without adequate safety assessment and in a non-transparent way. The report available online is just the summary and the raw data is available with the MoEFCC in Delhi.

Agriculture is a state subject. There is also the issue of constitutional rights. Agriculture falls under the jurisdiction of the state. But the Centre is taking such a major decision even though several states are opposing it.

Transient benefits: It is widely known that Bt cotton productivity has dropped, with the bollguard pests becoming resistant to the crop and causing distress among farmers. At this point, allowing another GM seed does not appear logical.