Concerns over environmental impact of GM mustard could delay approval

GM mustard
Pro-GM scientists are upset with the Supreme Court's questions on the environmental impact of GM mustard, and argue that the delay could impact India's edible oil security.

Pro-GM scientists have expressed dismay over the questions raised by the Supreme Court of India on the environmental impact of genetically modified mustard. The scientists and researchers are of the opinion that the argument of the environmental impact of GM mustard is being raised to delay its environmental clearance. They believe that the move will have a significant impact on India’s edible oil security.

The Supreme Court of India had expressed concerns about the release of genetically modified (GM) mustard, stating that its environmental harm cannot be undone. The court has denied permission to the government to proceed with the sowing of GM mustard seeds. The hearing on this matter has also been postponed until September 26. Several petitions have been filed against the environmental release clearance granted to GM mustard hybrid DMH-11.

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A key figure behind DMH-11 (the GM mustard up for approval) informed a news outlet that the barnase-barstar genes are environment friendly and have undergone extensive research before seeking approval. Notably, there have been no negative report related to the use of this gene since 1998. Delhi University’s Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP) and the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) have jointly applied for the approval of GM mustard.

Bhagirath Choudhary, the founder and director of the South Asia Biotechnology Centre in Jodhpur, explained that in India, the biosafety regulation of GM crops falls under the purview of the Central Environment Ministry rather than the agriculture or science ministry. This aspect should also allay the Supreme Court’s concerns and foster trust in the scope and reliability of regulatory oversight, thus resolving the GM crop case.

India’s position on GM crops

India has not adopted a proactive stance regarding the utilisation of GM crops. While hybrid crops have gained traction in foreign countries, mustard hybrids and GM crops, in general, have not been embraced by Indian farmers despite years of trials. Concerns persist about genetic modification technology in principle, and certain farmer groups perceive them as risky.

In 2009, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) cleared Bt Brinjal, a transgenic food crop, but the decision was overturned by the UPA government. Cotton remains the sole GM crop currently permitted for cultivation in India. In 2010, India blocked the release of a GM eggplant variety due to opposition from environmentalists and some farmers.

While India debates the safety of barnase-barstar GM technology, it has proven successful in canola production in Canada, Australia, and the US. This technology constitutes a major export in these countries, including honey. These nations have approved multi-trait GM canola, which has enabled their farmers to tap into yield potential through hybridisation and an effective weed control system utilising multiple modes of action.

The GM mustard case

GM mustard or DMH-11 is an indigenously developed transgenic mustard, a genetically modified variant of herbicide tolerant (HT) mustard. It contains two foreign genes isolated from a soil bacterium that facilitate breeding high-yielding commercial mustard hybrids. DMH-11 has demonstrated an approximately 28% higher yield than the national check and 37% more than the zonal checks; its use has been endorsed by the GEAC.

After thorough and comprehensive environmental and biosafety risk assessments by various regulatory bodies under the Rules of 1989 of the EPA, 1986, approval for the environmental release of GM mustard was granted. This approval followed two decades of evaluating risk factors, during which scientists were able to affirm the biosafety of GM mustard for humans, animals, and the environment.

Hybrid mustard plays a crucial role in meeting India’s edible oil needs. Despite having various mustard varieties, India remains a net oil importer due to low yields. The food crisis resulting from the Ukraine war has exacerbated this problem, straining forex reserves. These imports amounted to $20.84 billion (Rs 167,270 crore) during the fiscal year ending in March 2023, covering over 60% of the country’s consumption.

To mitigate the forex drain from agricultural imports, the scientific community deems GM Mustard indispensable. While DMH-11 alone is not a panacea for India’s edible oil crisis, the larger point is that India must reconsider its stance and eliminate uncertainty around regulatory policies concerning seed development. To signal transformation, the Government must support the approval by the GEAC and reinstate a system where scientific consensus outweighs political considerations.