The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) has recommended “environmental release” – larger field trials – of a transgenic mustard hybrid, making it the first genetically modified (GM) crop to get such regulatory approval in two decades. If the GEAC’s approval leads to commercialiation of the seed with the necessary consent of the top echelons of the government, then it could become the first GM food crop to be cultivated in India and could lead to a sharp rise in the production of key oil seed.
India started commercial cultivation of BT cotton in 2002, which resulted in an impressive threefold increase in cotton yield within a decade.
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To be sure, the GEAC, which was previously called Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, had approved the first transgenic food crop Bt Brinjal in 2009 for wider environmental release. However, the decision was later stayed by the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh on grounds of “insufficient scientific evidence about safety”. The issue has since been hanging fire.
The GM mustard seed DMH 11 was developed by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plant (CGMCP) of the Delhi University.
The GEAC has recommended “the environmental release of genetically engineered mustard parental lines bn 3.6 carrying barnase and bar genes, and modbs 2.99 containing barstar and bar genes, so that these events can be used for developing new parental lines and hybrids under supervision of Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR),” the regulator said in the minutes of its 146th meeting held on October 18, 2022.
The regulator has given approval for field trials of GM mustard for four years and is renewable for two years at a time based on compliance reports. A final call, of course, will be taken by the ministry of environment and forests and climate change.
As per protocol, the minutes of the GEAC ‘s meeting are uploaded in public domain after all clearances have been obtained.
“This is a step forward to reduce imports and be self-reliant in oilseed production,” KC Bansal, secretary, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, told FE.
Bansal said the environmental release of GM mustard parental lines will facilitate transferring of relevant genes through conventional breeding to diverse parental lines of mustard for developing more potent hybrids with higher yields for farmers.
Patent on indigenously developed GM mustard is jointly held by National Dairy Development Board and the University of Delhi under Deepak Pental.
“Commercial use of GM mustard hybrid DMH-11 will allow Indian mustard farmers to produce more mustard per unit area,” Bhagirath Choudhary, founder director of the South Asia Biotechnology Centre, said.
Meanwhile, the coalition for a GM-Free India, urged the government against approval of GM mustard citing lack of scientificity or responsible regulation. RSS-affiliate Swadeshi Jagran Manch said that the environment ministry would not give the final nod for GM mustard.
India meets 56% of its annual edible oil consumption via imports with annual imports being around 13-14 million tonne (mt).
Out of the total domestic production of edible oil, the share of mustard is around 40%, which is currently grown mostly under the rainfed conditions, where yields fluctuate. In the 2021-22 rabi season, the mustard was sown in around 9.1 million hectares (mh). Other main oil seeds – soyabean and groundnut have shares of 24% and 7%, respectively, in domestic production
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Meanwhile, GEAC has also approved confined field trials of genetically engineered potato clonal hybrid KJ66 developed by Central Potato Research Institute.
Since the introduction of Bollgard-I (Bt cotton), which was the country’s first GM crop approved for commercialisation in 2002, Bollgard II, a pest-resistant variety, which protects the crop from bollworm was approved in 2006. The GEAC hasn’t approved any new varieties after that.