For the first time in 16 years, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the authority to approve trials and release of genetically modified (GM) crops, has paved the way for the commercial release of GM mustard. 

This is the first GM food crop that India has permitted for commercial release. After 2006 when the Centre permitted the commercial release of Bollgard II cotton, this is the first crop that has overcome regulatory and political hurdles to be allowed for release. 

This is a significant development since the 2009 controversy over GM brinjal and the 2016 move by the Centre to allow field trials of GM mustard. Then, the Supreme Court stayed it saying public opinion should be sought on the issue.

Will test Govt’s resolve

Besides permitting the “environmental release” of GM mustard, the GEAC, at its October 18 meeting, asked the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) to permit field trials of genetically-engineered or GM potato, banana and rubber. The permission is for an initial period of four years. It will be subsequently renewed once in two years based on a compliance report, according to the minutes of the GEAC meeting.  

The GEAC has asked RCGM to permit trials of 10 GM “cotton lines” at two of Hyderabad-based Bioseed Research India Ltd sites in Telangana and Maharashtra during the kharif 2023 season. 

These developments are significant and will test the administrative and political resolve of the Narendra Modi government in providing Indian farmers access to the latest agricultural technology. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government made the historic decision to allow the cultivation of GM cotton in 2002. 

GM brinjal hurdles

Since then, India has not allowed the commercial release of any other crop. Though attempts were made to introduce field trials of GM brinjal, it met with stiff resistance with the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh announcing stopping of trials to conduct public hearing.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture recommended ending all field trials in 2012. A year later, a Supreme Court technical committee mooted a moratorium on all GM crop trials for 10 years until regulatory and monitoring systems are strengthened. Jayanthi Natarajan, who had become the minister of environment, stopped all field trials before her successor Verappa Moily restored the trials the following year.

“The decision has been a long-pending one and it seems the situation has finally turned favourable to introduce the latest technology in agriculture,” said M Ramasami, founder of Rasi Seeds and Chairman, Federation of Seed Industry of India.

Anil Ghanwat, President, Shetkhari Sanghatana, said it was a positive move. “But I hope the Government will implement the GEAC decision,” he said. 

Farmers, particularly those cultivating cotton, would welcome the decision to allow field trials of cotton since they have been demanding new GM varieties. India’s cotton productivity has stagnated over the last few years with growers now demanding new varieties of GM, which catapulted the natural fibre production to over 300 lakh bales (170 kg) from less than 200 lakh bales in the late 1990s. 

Hurdles in getting through

“There are people who seek the latest technology 5G phones. Why should farmers be denied the latest technology in agriculture?” Ghanwat wondered. 

However, industry insiders see two hurdles in getting the latest GM technology. One is anti-GM activists trying to up the ante and preventing any development of GM crops. In 2009, the anti-GM activists were mainly behind the various hurdles that field trials of GM brinjal faced. They pointed at the opposition of the Swadesh Jagaran Manch, a sister unit of the RSS which has a role in the government’s policy, which the Centre has to tackle.

The other issue is the free pricing of the technology. The Centre fixing a cap on the royalty to be paid for the technology discourages companies involved in developing the new technologies from sharing them with Indian firms.

While GEAC did not take up any application with regard to GM brinjal, neighbouring Bangladesh has been cultivating the crop for nearly five years now. The crop has gained acceptance and many farmers are adopting the GM variety which can mainly ward off pest attacks. 

What the decision means

By permitting “environmental release” the GEAC has allowed the commercial release of GM mustard. The ball now is in the court of the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crops, University of Delhi South Campus, to grant permission for the commercial release. State governments will have a role in the commercial release of the GM variety. 

The GEAC clearance for GM mustard comes after due deliberations on the report of an expert committee and comments received from the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Department of Agricultural Research and Education (DARE).

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) will be the authorised agency to accord necessary permissions for the development of any other Brassica juncea (mustard) hybrids. “All hybrids released using this technology shall also be regulated under Seed Act 1966,” the GEAC said.

Other clearances

“Allowing GM technology will help develop better varieties in the future as the scope has been opened now. Not only mustard, but it will also pave ways for other crops, too,” said PK Rai, director of ICAR’s Bharatpur-based Directorate of Rapeseed-Mustard Research.

The GEAC asked RCGM to permit confined field trials of GM potato (BRL-1) by ICAR-Central Potato Research Centre, Shimla, in Shillong, as the institute has got a no objection certificate (NOC) from the Meghalaya government. 

The National Agri-Food Biotechnology Institute, Mohali, will hold event selection trials of five GE banana lines during 2022-24 in Mohali, Tiruchi, Coimbatore, Navsari and Assam’s Dubri.

Though Bioseed Research India withdrew its application for event trials selection  of 20 GE cotton lines, its application for similar trials for 10 cotton lines will be done from the next kharif season.

The GEAC has permitted the Rubber Research Institute of India, Kottayam in Kerala, to conduct field trials at its Guwahati campus for 15 years starting 2023 with a gene derived from tobacco...