The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee’s (GEAC) approval for the environmental release of genetically engineered mustard ends a decade-long policy hiatus on genetically modified (GM) crops in India. This is welcome because, in recent years, sub-par crop yields have been a key impediment to India’s food security and farmer incomes. GM technology represents a viable, globally used route to lift productivity. The DM-11 mustard hybrid, developed by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP) under Delhi University, is an attempt to produce high-yielding hybrid strains of mustard from existing Indian and East European varieties. As mustard is a self-pollinating crop not amenable to hybridisation, genetic modifications in the form of barnase-barstar proteins have been incorporated to produce the DM-11 hybrid.

The GEAC’s decision is based on the results of limited-scale, controlled field trials presented by the CGMCP and the fact that genetically engineered canola (a close relative of mustard) with identical technology has been in vogue globally since 1995. GM canola has been commercially produced in Canada since 1995-96 and used in food and feed in Australia, the EU, Japan, China and the US since 2005.  CGMCP’s controlled trials, conducted under ICAR’s oversight, have shown DM-11 yielding 2,300-3,000 kg per hectare while non-GM strains yielded just 1,400-2,300 kg. They also suggest that seeds, leaves and oil from GM mustard don’t materially differ from conventional mustard and don’t pose a hazard to biodiversity or pollinators.

Though GEAC’s approval clears the decks for commercial production of DM-11 by farmers and provides a platform for other mustard hybrids, the Centre needs to address apprehensions in the minds of farmers and consumers before large-scale commercialisation. Unlike cotton, mustard is a staple food and its oil cake is animal feed. Detractors claim that the non-GM hybrids used to support CGMCP’s yield claims are inferior and that DM-11’s performance needs to be evaluated against more robust hybrids. They question the applicability of global studies on toxicity and environmental impact to Indian conditions. They fear that hybridisation of mustard with the bar gene — which renders the plant tolerant to weedicide glufosinate — will promote over-use of the weedicide, leading to superweeds. The first two concerns can be addressed by the Centre with field demonstration trials on a larger scale across India to re-verify these claims. The third, which stems from the Bt cotton experience (where significant initial yield gains plateaued and led to pest resistance), needs to be addressed by CGMCP and ICAR.  

Ahead of commercialisation, safeguards also need to be in place to avoid mingling of GM and non-GM mustard varieties, with distinct labelling right from the farm to the fork. This may call for stringent record-keeping and adherence to buffer zoning norms, a bar on unauthorised GM sowing and segregation of supply chains for GM and non-GM varieties. An all-encompassing policy on GM crops which ensures that not just farmers, but also consumers can exercise choices on what they eat, will smooth the road for future experiments with GM.