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Background

The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), India’s apex regulator of genetically modified plants and food products, has approved the environmental release of Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11), a genetically-engineered variant of mustard.

If approved for commercial cultivation it would be the first genetically modified food crop available to Indian farmers.

What is DMH-11?

DMH-11 is a hybrid variant of mustard developed by researchers at The Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants, at the University of Delhi. DMH-1, a hybrid variant that was developed without transgenic technology.

DMH-1 was approved for commercial release in northwest India in 2005-2006 but scientists have said that this technology wasn’t bankable enough to consistently produce hybrid mustard.

While India has several mustard varieties, it is a self-pollinating plant and therefore a challenge for plant-breeders to cross different mustard varieties and induce desirable traits.

Being able to turn off this self-pollinating trait to enable such crossings and then restoring the trait, to enable seed production, is how the mustard plant’s genes are to be manipulated.

DMH-11 is a result of a cross between two varieties: Varuna and Early Heera-2.

Such a cross wouldn’t have happened naturally and was done after introducing genes from two soil bacterium called barnase and barstar.

Barnase in Varuna induces a temporary sterility because of which it can’t naturally self-pollinate.

Barstar in Heera blocks the effect of barnase allowing seeds to be produced.

The result is DMH-11 (where 11 refers to the number of generations after which desirable traits manifest) that not only has better yield but is also fertile. DMH-11 is a transgenic crop because it uses foreign genes from a different species.

Are hybrid mustard varieties better?

Trials conducted over three years by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) suggest that DMH-11 has 28% higher yields than its parent Varuna and was 37% better than zonal checks, or local varieties that are considered the best in different agro-climatic zones.

DMH-11 rather than being an end in itself signals the proof of success of the barnase-barstar system that can act as a platform technology to develop newer hybrids.

Scientists say that having better hybrids is necessary to meet India’s rising edible-oil import bill.

Mustard (Brassica juncea) is cultivated in 6-7 million hectares during the Rabi winter season predominantly in Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh. India imports anywhere from 55-60% of its domestic edible-oil requirement.

In 2020-21, around 13.3 million tonnes of edible oil were imported at a cost of ₹1,17,000 crore according to the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences. This is primarily due to low productivity — of about 1-1.3 tonnes/hectare — that has been stagnant for over two decades.

On the other hand, hybrid mustard and rapeseed are the dominant form of oil seeds in Canada, China and Europe. So, proponents say, the only way to improve India’s productivity is to have more mustard hybrids.

Why is it controversial?

There are two main reasons why transgenic mustards are a topic of debate.

The use of genes that are foreign to the species is one and secondly, the preparation of mustard hybrids require the use of another gene, called the bar gene, that makes it tolerant to a herbicide called glufosinate-ammonium.

Activist groups allege that the GM mustard hasn’t been evaluated as a herbicide tolerant crop posing potential risks. Finally, they allege, GM mustard plants may dissuade bees from pollinating the plant and this could have knock-off environmental catastrophes.

What next for GM mustard?

This isn’t the first time that the GEAC has cleared the environmental release of GM mustard. In 2017 too, the apex body had cleared it but the process got stalled after a case was lodged in the Supreme Court.

The government, or specifically the Environment Ministry, hasn’t officially supported GM mustard despite the GEAC being a body under it.

Bt Brinjal, the first transgenic food crop, too was cleared by the GEAC in 2009 but was put on hold by the then-UPA government on the grounds that more tests were needed.

Currently the only transgenic crop grown in India is Bt-cotton.

The GEAC go-ahead only allows DMH-11 to be grown in fields under the supervision of the ICAR. The Indian Agricultural Research Institute has said that the crop would be commercially available after “three seasons” now that they can be grown in large quantities for evaluation.


 

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