The controversial Dhara Mustard Hybrid (DMH-11), India’s first Genetically Modified (GM) food crop approved by the government, may give a miss to the 2023-24 season as its field trial is unlikely to be conducted since the Supreme Court has not yet said yes or no to the trial while the normal sowing window for the mustard crop closes around November 15.

The Supreme Court could not hear the case in the last couple of hearings, including on November 7, and the next date is yet to be fixed. Though the matter may likely to come up next week before the apex court, it is not clear whether there will be any order passed to allow sowing.

The area under mustard has reached 57.16 lakh hectares (lh) as of November 10, a tad higher from 56.87 lh in the year-ago period, the agriculture ministry’s data show. Already, nearly 80 per cent of the sowing of the normal area (last five years’ average) has been completed and before November 21, over 90 per cent of the area will be covered, an expert said, adding, beyond which, if it is planted, the yield level will drop.

Agriculture scientists are tight-lipped as the matter is in the Supreme Court. But, on the condition of not being quoted, many have expressed concern over restriction on trial. “The trial should be allowed, even if not the commercial release, as it will widen the scope of scientific research,” a former director of an oilseed research institute said.

Weight concerns stir debate

As earlier reported by businessline, DMH-11 failed to meet the minimum weight criteria required for commercial release as a seed, while there is no discrepancy found in the claims regarding its yield and oil content during field trials conducted by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) at six different locations in 2022-23 season.

According to the trial results, DMH 11 has about 26 quintal per hectare yield and 40 per cent oil content. However, it weighs about 3.5 grams per 1,000 seeds, which is lower than the norm of 4.5 gram to be eligible for notification as a hybrid seed variety. Experts said that lower weight of mustard seeds leads to yield losses when mechanically harvested, and manual harvesting is reduced due to labour issues.

At the 29 Annual Group Meeting of All India Coordinated Research Project on mustard seeds during the first week of August in Jaipur, chaired by then vice-chancellor of Jobner Agriculture University J S Sandhu, it was decided to “include the thousand seed weight of more than 4.5 gm for promotion of hybrids in hybrid evaluation trials.”

The apex court is hearing the approval of GM mustard, challenged by Gene Campaign and activist Aruna Rodrigues.

The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the regulatory body under the Environment Ministry for GM crops, in October 2022 had approved “environmental release” of the DMH-11 seed for trials, demonstrations and seed production under the supervision of the ICAR. The Centre has developed DMH-11 for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants at the Delhi University, which was first approved by GEAC in 2017, but the decision was later retracted.