Seeding of a revolution: Mustard becoming first GM food crop to be approved in India is seminal

Mustard is necessary to reduce the country's dependence on imported cooking oil. India imports about 15 million tonnes of cooking oil for about $10 billion a year.

Published: 02nd November 2022 05:23 PM  |   Last Updated: 03rd November 2022 08:36 PM   |  A+A-


Golden future: If the DDLJ sequel were to be shot in a Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 farm, we would have a richer, more mustardy background, argues the column. (Photo | Screengrab)

The environmental release of genetically modified (GM) mustard hybrid DMH-11 and its parents with the bar, barnase and barstar genes is a momentous event. Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11) is the first GM food crop to be approved in India. The only other crop that was approved -- in 2002 -- was the boll-borer resistant Bt cotton. The end of policy paralysis is welcome.

Anti-GM activists have once again sprung into action. They are questioning the yield claims made for DMH-11. The developers, a team of Delhi University scientists led by its former vice chancellor Deepak Pental, say that measured against Varuna, a mega variety, DMH-11 yielded 28 per cent more in three field trials that were conducted between 2010 and 2015. Against the best performing zonal varieties, it gave a 37 per cent higher yield.

Of more importance than the yield of DMH-11 is the method of developing mustard hybrids.

Mustard is a self-pollinating plant. Its flowers have both male and female sexual organs. To produce hybrids through cross-pollination, the flowers must be emasculated so that they can accept the pollen of another mustard variety of interest (for high yield, pest and pathogen resistance or climate resilience).

The conventional way of producing mustard hybrids is through cytoplasmic genetic male sterility (CGMS). Male sterile plants occur in nature as a result of spontaneous mutation. Male sterility can also be induced through, say, chemicals. Without going into the technical details, this system requires three lines: a male sterile line, a male sterility maintainer line and a fertility restorer line. This method takes a lot of time and effort. The male sterile lines may not always be fully sterile. Sterility can also break down in, say, very low temperatures.

ALSO READ | GM mustard: Farmers gear up for protest in Karnataka

With GM technology, only two lines are needed to produce hybrids. Any mustard line can be made male sterile using the barnase gene obtained from a soil bacterium. It produces an enzyme that degenerates pollen and makes it unviable. The other parent has a barstar gene also obtained from the same bacterium, which reverses the action of the barnase gene. The resultant seed is fertile and can germinate. The herbicide tolerant bar gene is inserted into both parents so that when sprayed with the herbicide glufosinate ammonium (popular brand name Basta), only the offspring resistant to the herbicide, but containing the barnase and barstarr genes, will survive. This is a more efficient way of creating mustard hybrids. Pental had combined the Indian variety with an East European variety -- Early Hira 2 -- to obtain a higher-yielding hybrid.

Mustard yield has increased from 368 kgs per hectare in 1950-51 to 1,422 kg per hectare. Much of this has been due to pure line breeding. To raise the yield significantly and even double it, GM hybridisation technology is needed.

Herbicide tolerance is also a useful trait. Glufosinate is not allowed to be used on mustard. It should be. Rajasthan produces about half of the country's mustard output of 9 million tonnes. But it is infested with a weed that preys on mustard plant roots. Yield and output will increase when this weed is controlled.

Mustard is necessary to reduce the country's dependence on imported cooking oil. India imports about 15 million tonnes of cooking oil – about 55-60 percent of its consumption – for about $10 billion a year.

Oil palm yields the highest amount of oil, about four tonnes per hectare. In August last year, India launched the oil palm mission to expand the cultivation of oil palm and production of palm oil. Mustard is no match for oil palm, but it has a high oil content of up to 46 percent. A hectare of mustard can yield about 600 kg of oil.

The association of edible oil producers has been urging the government to launch Mission Mustard and incentivise its cultivation in Punjab with subsidies. This will also serve the purpose of crop diversification in that state. The cultivation of mustard should also be encouraged in rice fallows in eastern India.

The regulator for GM crops had recommended to the government in May 2017 the environmental release of DMH-11. But environment minister Harsh Vardhan did not accept the advice and suggested that studies on the impact on honeybees and other pollinators should be conducted first. Those studies were done during biosafety trials. They were not repeated. But the hybrid has been recommended for release with the condition that the impact study on honeybees should be done post-release.

Nothing has changed in the last five years, except that high global commodity prices have made the government realise that ideological whims come at a cost.  Even this time, the regulator has only made a recommendation for environmental release. There is no express acceptance of the recommendation by the government. Acceptance of the advice or permission for environmental release is said to be implied in the environment minister's approval of the minutes of the regulator's meeting where the decision on environmental release was taken. The government has taken overt ownership of the decision. Perhaps the government does not want to affront RSS affiliates - the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch - which oppose GM mustard.

Canada approved GM canola (rapeseed, related to mustard) and its transgenic lines in 1996. The US and Australia approved them in 2002 and 2003 respectively. It's a tested technology that has been found to be safe so far.

(Vivian Fernandes is a freelance journalist. These are the writer's views.)


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