GM mustard gets regulator approval for field cultivation

Published on Oct 26, 2022 11:47 PM IST

India’s biotech regulator, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), has approved genetically modified (GM) mustard for commercial cultivation, paving the way for the country’s first transgenic food crop, nearly 15 years after its inventor, a public-sector scientist, first worked on it in his Delhi University lab and fields near the national capital.

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HT Image
ByZia Haq & Jayashree Nandi, New Delhi

India’s biotech regulator, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), has approved genetically modified (GM) mustard for commercial cultivation, paving the way for the country’s first transgenic food crop, nearly 15 years after its inventor, a public-sector scientist, first worked on it in his Delhi University lab and fields near the national capital.

The decision is “great for the country” because GM mustard would bring “better yields and lower costs for farmers”, said Deepak Pental, former Delhi University vice-chancellor and the scientist behind GM mustard, technically called Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11). The partially state-funded project cost 70 crore in all, from lab to field trials.

Activists opposed to transgenic crops slammed the approval. The Coalition for a GM-free India called the clearance “shocking”, alleging that the “regulator colluded with the developer” to push it through.

GEAC’s approval clears the path for commercial seed production of GM mustard and use of the technology to further produce more GM-based mustard hybrid varieties. The commercial clearances were given in an October 18 meeting of GEAC, details of which were uploaded on the body’s website on Wednesday.

Pental said more research on transgenics in other oilseed crops could help the country become self-sufficient in cooking oils. India imports up to 60% of edible oils to meet its domestic demand. GM mustard allows for the hybridisation of a plant that otherwise self-pollinates (making hybrids next to impossible), facilitating the creation of high-output hybrids.

Developed by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants of Delhi University and the National Dairy Development Board and partly funded by the department of biotechnology, DMH-11 is a testimony to homegrown scientific prowess. However, GM technologies have been fiercely resisted, amid fears they could compromise food security, lead to seed monopolies and become biosafety hazards.

The approval is for a “limited period of four years” and is “renewable for two years at a time based on compliance report”, GEAC said, imposing a clutch of conditions to be followed by owners of the product.

Pental and his team improvised on a 1990s breeding innovation pioneered in Belgium called the barnase/barster male sterility technique. The Delhi-based biotechnologist said his product had three genes – barnase, barster and bar – from rapeseed that had been deregulated for consumption by Canada in 1996, by the US in 2002 and Australia in 2003.

Barnase and barster are genes from naturally occurring bacteria. Barnase switches on male sterility, barster switches it back off. In GM mustard, bar was used to, among other things, help maintain male sterility, ensuring that the variety doesn’t self-pollinate as it usually does. The idea was to make mustard amenable to hybridisation.

“So, Pantel and his team arranged the genes in a way that will allow a large number of high yielding varieties of mustard to be developed, which is normally not possible. That’s the breakthrough,” said Bhagirath Choudhary of South Asia Biotechnology Centre, New Delhi.

“This combination of male-sterile and restorer lines in mustard constitutes a complete and functional male-sterility/restorer system that could be diversified into better combiners and used to produce new hybrids for all times to come,” a background note prepared on the GM mustard seed known as DMH-11 states.

A cooking oil, mustard has been pressed in India for 4,000 years through bullock-powered mortar-and-pestle pressers commonly called the “khachi ghani”. However, Indian mustard is only half as robustly growing as its east European cousins. Low yields mean India has to import millions of dollars’ worth of cooking oil each year.

GM mustard had been stuck in the regulatory process after initial approval in 2017. Back then, an expert committee was formed to examine questions and observations by its critiques. The expert committee appointed to examine objections overlooked a lot of “valid scientific concerns”, said Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture.

The regulator brushed aside concerns that GM mustard could harm honey bees. The approval states: “Based on the examination of scientific evidences available globally, and as per the recommendations of concerned ministries, it seems unlikely that the bar, barnase, and barstar system will pose an adverse impact on honey bees and other pollinators.

“Therefore, the committee was of the view that GEAC may consider the environmental release of GE (genetically engineered) mustard and further evaluation to be carried out as per ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research) guidelines.” it said.

The recommendation to make the approval public was taken at the highest levels, a person aware of the development said. Biotechnology advocates and activists alike still wondered if GEAC’s approval also meant a political go-ahead for unrestricted field cultivation of GM mustard.

“My understanding is that unless the government intervenes to reverse the GEAC’s recommendation for commercial release, then it stands effectively cleared,” said Ashok Mahale, a former scientist who officially examined data pertaining to India’s first transgenic food crop, Bt Brinjal.

In 2009, the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh during the previous United Progressive Alliance government led by Manmohan Singh, put an indefinite ban on Bt Brinjal after it was cleared by GEAC.

The Coalition for a GM-Free India, an umbrella organization that opposed Bt brinjal too, said the approval for the GM mustard process lacked “scientificity or responsible regulation”.

The coalition questioned the key decision to order studies on honey bees during commercial planting. “Only two additional tests have been prescribed by GEAC in a perfunctory and irresponsible fashion since then as though the debate about GM mustard was about these two aspects alone.”

GEAC has put two compliance conditions on GM mustard’s developers. One, they will have to undertake “field demonstration studies with respect to the effect of GE mustard on honey bees and other pollinators” within two years post commercialization. GEAC also banned any GM mustard hybrid that can be made herbicide-tolerant.

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