GM mustard’s a major step forward

CD Mayee | Updated on January 12, 2018

Bring the smile back: That’s the expectation - Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

It’s safe, it’s effective and it’s swadeshi, and the sooner it’s approved, the better for our farmers and scientists

After many years of deliberation and debates on agricultural technologies, India finally has good news as the apex regulator, Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), has recommended the commercial approval of our first food biotech crop: GM mustard. Developed by a public sector institute, the approval by GEAC of GM mustard is certainly a positive step towards the future which India needs to accept.

Called Dhara Mustard Hybrid 11 (DMH-11), it is an example of the competence of our researchers and scientists in addressing the dire agrarian situation in India. Developed by renowned geneticist Deepak Pental (former vice-chancellor of Delhi University) and his team, with support from the National Dairy Development Board and the department of biotechnology, Dhara Mustard Hybrid will help our farmers increase mustard productivity which has been stagnant for several years. Increase in production will certainly lead to an improvement in farmers’ incomes and standard of living as well.

Big breakthrough

Mustard is amongst the three largest oilseed crops of India with soyabean and groundnut being other two, but the yields have remained stagnant for many years. Mustard is a self-pollinated crop and its flower contains both male and female parts. Hence, it is difficult to pollinate from the male part of another parental line until one creates a female only by inducing male sterility in a parental line.

Pental and his team worked for years to create this technology where the male part of the flowers of one of the parental line is made sterile, enabling pollination from another parental line. This helps achieve the vigour of hybridisation and improving yield. What is more important to note is that this technology, once approved, will help bring better hybrids using the same platform to improve the mustard crop yield significantly.

GEAC’s decision on GM mustard is testimony to the rigorous regulatory system for such innovations, backed by years of research and scientific data. The same regulatory system is used for testing and approval of biotech pharma products, which are exported globally. GEAC has made the recommendation based on scientific evaluations and not on emotional hypothesis. This is backed by data and evidence and needs to be encouraged and embraced by everyone.

Nearly a first

With this decision, India is one step away from commercial approval of GM mustard and if granted it will be the first biotech food crop for the country. We trust our environment ministry to be far-sighted enough and understanding of the scope of innovation in agriculture. With a government at the Centre focussed on doubling farmers’ income by 2022, we look forward to an encouraging response from the decision-makers. Further, it is important to note that GM mustard will help the country address its shortage of edible oil and minimise the gap between demand and supply over the years.

Currently, more than 60 per cent of the domestic demand of edible oil is met by imports as domestic production has remained stagnant. As is well-known, India faces a huge deficit in edible oil and annually imports over 14.5 million tonnes of its edible oil requirement, which includes oil extracted from GM soyabean and GM canola from North and South America.

This is the third largest import for India and in 2016, accounted for a burden of ₹78,000 crore on our import bills. Approval of GM mustard and development of more varieties of hybrids using this technology will continue to reduce such import requirements.

Many allege unscientific and unreasonable objections to GM mustard. Foremost amongst those misconceptions is about safety. For over 15 years, GM canola oil (a variant of mustard) and GM soya oil have been consumed globally without a single case of adverse impact. In India too, we have been importing nearly 4 million tonnes of these GM oils and consuming GM canola oil and GM soya oil for over a decade. Besides, GEAC has recommended this technology for commercialisation only after being satisfied about its safety.

Another misinformation being spread is that this technology will benefit multinational companies. This technology is developed by a renowned Indian scientist in an Indian institution with the full support of public funds from NDDB and the Government. Thus it is a swadeshi technology and needs to be encouraged.

Misleading charges

There are also allegations that with this technology, farmers will have to buy the seeds every year. However, that has nothing to do with the technology. Even today, farmers buy hybrid seeds (without GM) of crops every year. Even in varieties, progressive farmers buy seeds every season as seed replacement gives better yields, and the cost of the seed is a minuscule part of the total farming costs.

The other miscommunication by activists is about the adverse impact of GM mustard on the environment, which is once again false propaganda. The technology was tested well for its environmental safety by GEAC before it was recommended for release.

Globally, several countries have adopted biotechnology to address various farm challenges, especially to fight new pest attacks, diseases and climate change. According to ISAAA’s ‘Global Status of Commercialised Biotech Crops 2016 Report’, adoption and acceptance of GM crops has increased amongst farmers and consumers. Today, biotech crops are grown in 28 agriculturally advanced countries accounting for about 47 per cent of the global population. Another 31 countries, accounting for about 21 per cent of the global population, import and use GM crops.

No problems

GM crops have been grown for over 20 years globally without a single adverse case of safety. In India, after the approval of Bt cotton in 2002, no other biotech crops have been approved despite the huge success of Bt cotton.

In 2010, Bt brinjal which was recommended by GEAC for commercialisation was kept under a moratorium by the then government due to various pressures, while in 2013, the same technology was commercialised successfully in neighbouring country — Bangladesh. It is in this context that it is essential India commercialises GM mustard and does not lose another opportunity to modernise our agriculture.

With the decision pending with the environment ministry, the farming and scientific community hopes that GM mustard will get clearance soon. Our farmers need to access this powerful innovation and initiate the revolution in mustard production.

Commercial approval for GM mustard will not only boost the morale of our scientists, whose confidence has gone down since the Bt brinjal moratorium, but will also provide a new path for the growth of India’s largest sector — agriculture.

The writer is the president of the South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC) based out of Nagpur

Published on May 30, 2017

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