At the outset, we should congratulate Deepak Pental, for developing GM mustard. It is the first major breakthrough in GM research in India. We should also congratulate GEAC for taking a step forward and recommending the commercialisation of GM mustard after a thorough scientific evaluation. This is the result of twenty years of painstaking scientific experiments and regulatory scrutiny. We are hopeful that the minister of environment and forests will approve its commercialisation based on GEAC’s recommendation. The GM mustard project was funded entirely by the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB)—the largest producer and supplier of Dhara brand edible oil in the country—and the government’s department of biotechnology (DBT).
Mustard is a self-pollinated crop and is difficult to breed for hybrid vigour, thereby, leading to a trap of low yields. This technical difficulty was overcome by Pental and his team of scientists in collaboration with other Brassica research groups of Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). The technology, called barnase-barstar, is aimed at enhancing heterosis in mustard (Brassica juncea), which will lead to increased yields. In the past, the conventional mustard hybrid production system using Cytoplasmic Male Sterility (CMS), a non-GM method for pollination control, has been used to produce mustard hybrids.
The conventional hybrid system suffers from some limitations, including low purity of hybrid seed, pollen shattering, limitation in different combination and temperature sensitivity. The biotech barnase-barstar system of mustard hybridisation is very versatile and will accelerate the mustard breeding programme in India. The GM mustard hybrid Dhara-11 (DMH-11) significantly out-yields popular mustard varieties. Given how the current yields of 1,000 kg/ha are lower than other countries like Canada and Australia and about 60 lakh mustard farmers in India suffer from lower incomes, the GM technology will help in doubling their incomes and enhancing their livelihoods.
It is important to note that mustard contributes a quarter of total edible oil production in India. The demand-supply gap in edible oils has widened so much that India spends almost Rs 80,000 crore annually on import of edible oils. We currently import more than 50% of our edible requirements. Our imports include GM soybean oil and GM canola oil (a sister crop of mustard—Brassica napus) which we have been consuming for almost two decades. With growing population, this problem of edible oil shortage is expected to go up.
To address this challenge, India needs to critically look at ways of increasing productivity of oilseed crops including mustard, soybean, and cotton. DMH-11 is one of the promising options available to us to improve the stagnant mustard yields. Today, GM crop cultivation has exceeded 185 million hectares with over 18 million farmers using them across 28 countries. These 28 countries represent agriculturally-advanced nations, accounting for over 47% of the global population. Another 31 countries including some of the EU countries import and consume GM crops, taking the total population consuming GM crops to over 68% of the world’s population, another testimony to the safety of biotech crop.
Actually, GM Mustard passes many criteria that have been put forth by the naysayers for many years. First, the barnase-barstar mustard hybrid, DMH-11, is the first public sector edible oil crop developed indigenously. In that sense, it is very much a ‘swadeshi’ technology. Second, it comes from a public institution, not a private company. This is an important criterion that was set by Jairam Ramesh, during his stint as minister for environment and forests in his infamous order against Bt Brinjal in 2010. He wanted the GM technology to come from the public sector. Third, it addresses a very important crop like mustard, which holds the key to our self-sufficiency in edible oils and the food security of the nation.
It is important to note that another species of Brassica, B. napus, popularly known as canola—expressing bar, barnase, and barstar genes—has been approved for commercial cultivation since 1996. Globally, there are 26 such events of GM canola’s (Brassica napus) approval. The crop has been in use for commercial cultivation in Canada, USA, and Australia since 1996. Many countries have also approved the consumption of GM canola seeds, seed-cake, and oil for food, feed, and processing (FFP) purpose.
As much as 6 million tonnes of GM canola oil is imported annually by many edible oil importing countries including Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Philippines, New Zealand, European Union, South Africa, Chile, and Mexico. India is one of the major importers and consumers of GM canola oil—around one million tonne per annum. Around 24% of global Brassica area of 36 million hectares is genetically modified. Finally, it is estimated that GM canola contributed to an increase of $4.9 billion in farmers’ income between 1996 and 2014.
For every tonne of oil produced in India, the farmer also gets an equal volume of protein-rich cake which doubles his income. This advantage is lost when we import oil. Hence, any technology that increases mustard yields will help in doubling farmer’s income. GM Mustard technology has been tested for biosafety, efficacy, hybridisation, crossability and field performance as per the Indian regulatory framework for more than a decade. GM mustard hybrid (DMH-11) was assessed in multiple trials for field-level performance in close collaboration with ICAR-DRMR and other
Brassica research groups at Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi and Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana. The biosafety studies including the crossability study of the transgenic Brassica juncea hybrid DMH-11 with related Brassica species such as B.rapa (toria, yellow sarson, brown sarson), B.nigra, B.oleracea (early types), B.napus, B.carinata, B.touneforti, Eruca sativa and Raphanus sativus were carried out to assess the gene flow and its consequences on the environment. Multiple field trials were conducted in the mustard growing states of Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and Delhi.
Mustard production and yield remain stagnant for the last two decades amidst the release of 96 varieties of Indian mustard since the inception of ICAR AICRP-RM from 1967 to 2014. In addition, both public and private sector have extensively used CMS systems of Ogura and Moricandia arvensis cytoplasm in the production of conventional mustard hybrids. However, a narrow variability in mustard germplasm of Brassica juncea is not adequate to break the existing yield ceiling. Additionally, mustard production is severely constrained by multiple factors including biotic and abiotic stresses like white rust, Alternaria blight, Sclerotinia rot, Orobanche, etc.
Different studies conducted in India, along with numerous earlier studies from the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, and EU have shown that proteins encoded by the bar, barstar, and barnase genes are neither allergenic nor toxic. Edible oil and meal extracted from biotech canola is a major source of edible oil for food and animal feed in the world. Edible oil extracted from GM mustard does not contain any of the three proteins, and therefore it is completely safe for human consumption.
The consumers need not fear anything and should believe in the robust regulatory process which establishes the safety of such technologies. It is the same GEAC, which approves many rDNA medicines and vaccines, that we consume without any apprehensions. The last GM crop approval in India was in 2002, for Bt cotton. During these 15 years, the world has moved forward by miles. Bangladesh has approved Bt brinjal, which our political class put on the shelf due to pressure from activists. Indonesia has approved GM sugarcane and Vietnam has approved GM corn. Our own Bt cotton is a big success story.
Based on many of these factors, it makes sense for the government to approve commercial cultivation of GM mustard following the scientific assessment carried out by the GEAC. This is the first swadeshi GM crop and it will be a great recognition for the Indian scientists and a greater service to the Indian farmers if it gets commercialised.