The approval of GM mustard in India is a watershed moment. It is the first GM food crop to be approved in India demonstrating country’s confidence in using modern technology in agriculture. This technology is from Delhi University — a public institution — a time to celebrate.

The need

Mustard is grown largely only in India. Oil of GM Canola, a sister crop of mustard, has been extensively used world over. India imports GM canola oil which gets blended with other edible oils.

India imports 60 per cent of its edible oil requirements valued at ₹1.25 lakh crore last year. This is bound to increase by the end of this decade to unmanageable levels. There is an urgent need to increase yields of large oilseed crops like mustard and soybean.

This year mustard is grown in 75 lakh ha of which 40 lakh ha is hybrid and rest varieties. Our yields are low at 1,510 Kg/ha compared to the global average of 2,000 Kg/ha. Yield of hybrid mustard is about 2,000Kg/ha while the varieties yield about 1,200. Hybrids have 41 per cent oil compared to 36 per cent of varieties.

Mustard being a self-pollinated crop with difficult flower structure, development of hybrids and their seed production is technically difficult. Plant breeders were looking for a technological method which would make management of male sterility system more efficient and help in creating new hybrids easier and their seed production better.

The technology

The technology developed by Delhi University uses three genes Barnase (sterility), Barstar (restoring fertility) and Bar (herbicide tolerance). Barnase and Barstar help in making male sterility robust and easier to handle. The bar gene is used for maintaining pure parent lines, avoiding contamination with other lines. The herbicide used is Glufosinate.

This helps in having pure male sterile as well as restorer lines, a mechanism for which the regulatory approval is given for use in breeding and seed production.

Although the Bar gene is also present in the hybrid seed sold to the farmers for commercial cultivation the current approval does not include use of Glufosinate on commercial crop.

This technology was originally developed by Bayer and commercialised in the Canadian markets in 1996. What is developed by the Delhi University team is similar, but they have modified the construct making it a different product.

This technology will now be made available to plant breeders in public and private sectors leading to a significant improvement in the quality of hybrids they develop and produce.

Regulatory process

The technology was developed by DU scientists by 2002. Extensive regulatory evaluation started in 2009. After completing BRL trials and food/feed and environmental/soil microflora safety studies regulatory application was submitted to GEAC in 2015.

It was reviewed by a sub-committee of GEAC which submitted its report in 2016. After an intensive regulatory evaluation GEAC recommended its approval to the Minister in May 2017. But it was withheld and more trials were prescribed, especially to study the effect on honeybees. Based on developers’ submission GEAC approved the commercial release of this technology in October 2022. Specific role is given to ICAR for widespread testing and commercial roll out of different hybrids developed using this technology.

Patents and exports

BBB technology was patented by Bayer globally in the 1990s which expired long back. Glufosinate, used as a marker in breeding and seed production fields with this technology, is a Bayer product that’s being used since 1999 and is already out of patent. Glufosinate and related technologies were divested by Bayer a few years back. Dr Pental’s team obtained a patent for the modifications they have carried out to the construct of Bayer. This is now an Indian technology.

Resistance development in insects and weeds to chemical pesticides is a regular phenomenon and not specific to GM technology. There is an extensive science behind preventing and managing resistance in insects and weeds which is followed globally to manage resistance to pesticides and GM. We should embrace modern technology in agriculture with appropriate stewardship protocols. The whole world including Europe consumes GM foods. Our mustard cake exports are not much and there is no reason to believe that it will be adversely affected. We must look at the bigger picture and see the overall benefit for the economy.

Safety of GM foods

Proof of human and animal safety of GM foods is available worldwide. European Union conducted a meta-analysis of 130 research projects over 25 years involving more than 500 independent research groups and concluded that GMOs were as safe as the conventional crops. Websites of ISAAA, Biofortified.org, informahealthcare.com, etc. provide more than 4,000 studies on this subject.

So far more than a trillion meals with GM foods are consumed in the world and no adverse effect on health is reported. Well established safety of GM foods apart from the rigorous evaluation carried out by our regulatory bodies, leave no doubt in the safety of GM foods.

Indians have been consuming imported GM oils for more than a decade and there has not been even a single report of any health issue. FAO recently released the document “Genetically modified crops: Safety, benefits, risks and global status” that concludes: “The potential risks of pests becoming resistant, crops gaining weediness and GM foods posing safety issues to both human and animals are studied extensively and a science-based risk assessment and management has been adopted to safeguard humans, animals and environment. We can be rest assured that approved GM crops are safe and monitored continuously.”

Overall, we should welcome the introduction of GM Mustard, show confidence in adopting modern technologies in agriculture, as we do in other fields, and trust our regulatory bodies who have put rigorous processes in place. This is for the benefit of our farmers and consumers. Denying our farmers access to these crops is discriminatory.

The writer is Director General, Federation of Seed Industry of India

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