India has been needlessly sceptical of genetic modification (GM) technology for food crops—Bt brinjal field trials have been under an open-ended moratorium since 2010, despite overwhelming evidence of the crop being safe. Now, with a sub-committee of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee—the apex body for GM clearances—finding an indigenously developed genetically modified mustard variant safe for human and animal consumption, apart from being safe for the environment (including for bees and soil microflora), there may still be hope that this attitude could change. The sub-committee, formed to re-evaluate the bio-safety data for the Brassica juncea transgenic hybrid Dhara Mustard Hybrid (DMH) 11, has found that it has ‘nil’ or ‘negligible’ impact for all the criteria it was examined, including toxicity, ‘allergenicity’ and potential as a weed. The committee has stated that the genetically-engineered (GE) parents are “substantially equivalent to their non-GE comparators” in terms of key parameters such as oil, protein, fatty acids, etc, while the hybrid is very similar, in its composition, to the varieties that are already cultivated in India with a history of safe use. Projected yields—almost 25% higher than existing levels, as per the Association of Biotech-Led Enterprises—would mean a lighter edible oil import bill for the country (India imported $10.5 billion worth of edible oilseeds in 2014-15).
Though the anti-GM lobby in India is quite strong—even the BJP has sections that are opposed to it—the government will do well to ensure India doesn’t miss out like it did with Bt brinjal. Indeed, the country is late to the game, given competing producers of mustard/ rapeseed, like Canada, Australia and the US, have permitted similar modifications (though in different species) for decades now—Canada did it as far back as 1995. With risks of climate uncertainty predicted to rise drastically, countries are becoming early adopters of GM technology for food crops—Bangladesh approved commercial cultivation of pest-resistant Bt brinjal in late-2013, and today, farmers have reported a 120% increase in yields. Given the GEAC report comes after a series of tests by institutions such as National Institute of Nutrition, CSIR’s Institute of Microbial Technology and the Directorate of Rapeseed Mustard Research, an ICAR institute, it is likely that there is virtually no area of bio-safety left uncovered for DMH 11. Against the backdrop of the Bt brinjal fiasco, DMH 11 presents an opportunity for the government to restore its progressive and scientific-minded credentials.