The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee’s (GEAC) decision to approve environmental release of the indigenously developed genetically modified (GM) mustard has heightened the optimism regarding its commercial release. But the track record doesn’t inspire much confidence: this is the second time that the GEAC has approved it—it had given clearance to Dhara Mustard Hybrid (DMH) 11 in May 2017. The Union environment ministry, under which the GEAC functions, had then swiftly vetoed the release and asked the biotech regulator to evaluate the results of further tests. The ministry’s hesitation was prompted by protests from anti-GM groups, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliate Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM). Their opposition doesn’t seem to have been because of any grave scientific concern and was more political in nature. That the road ahead will remain difficult became evident on Thursday when SJM advised the government to take note of GEAC actions “as to why it comes up with such approvals when there is so much opposition to GM mustard for legitimate reasons”.
The anti-GM group says there is a fear that the high herbicide tolerance of DMH-11 will allow farmers to substitute the labour hired for manual weeding with use of spraying of chemical herbicides. And it claims that the effect of one of the genes present in the transgenic hybrid can affect pollinators, specifically bees. This is despite the evidence from biosafety level I and II trials presented by the scientists who developed DMH-11 The trials showed bees visited the DMH-11 and non-GM comparators, and no fall was noticed in visits over the trial period. Indeed, the South Asia Biotechnology Centre had, in 2016, pointed to publicly available information in the biosafety-docket on DMH-11, which had outlined the biological basis of the safety of the GM crop for bees.
The GEAC had nevertheless approved fresh trials to study effects on pollinators in 2018, and in the latest instance, has cited the report of an expert committee comprising scientists at the department of biotechnology and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute that has held that the genes in DMH-11 are unlikely to “pose an adverse impact on honey bees and other pollinators”. Even as India dithered all these years on technology its own scientists had developed, Australia, a developed economy with a rigorous biotech approval policy, has beaten India to approving DMH-11 for commercial release.
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The fact is GM crops like DMH-11, with adequate demonstration of safety, can help India fortify its food security and self-sufficiency in agriculture. India produces about 9 million tonnes of edible oil annually, and imports 1.6X that quantity, with a forex outgo of close to $19 billion in 2021-22. It is true that mustard oil doesn’t form a significant chunk of the import, but if prices of the oil go down with increased production, there could surely be some room for substitution of, say, palm oil, leading to a lower import requirement. After all, DMH-11, it is claimed, sees 25-28% higher yield than the varieties conventionally cultivated in India. As agricultural productivity comes under climate-change pressures—from frequent droughts, increased prevalence of weeds and pests, etc—genetic modification and other biotechnological instruments will form an important part of the arsenal to ensure production continues to meet human needs. While caution and scientific rigour will remain imperative, policy decisions must become inured to summary rejection with bogey-man arguments.