Based on the recommendations of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change recently approved the environmental release of genetically modified (GM) mustard hybrid (DMH 11), paving the way for commercial use of the first GM food crop (GEAC).
GS Paper 3: Science and Technology- developments and their applications and effects in everyday life
Discuss the benefits and drawbacks of genetically modified (GM) crops in India. (150 words)
Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC)
GEAC is a body under the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change that evaluates proposals relating to the “release” of GM organisms and products (typically considered hazardous) into the environment.
Developing GM Mustard Hybrid DMH 11
- About hybridisation: It involves crossing two genetically dissimilar plant varieties, which can even be from the same species. The first-generation (F1) offspring of such crosses have higher yields than either parent can provide individually.
- Difficulty: Because mustard flowers have both female (pistil) and male (stamen) reproductive organs, the plants are largely self-pollinating.
- New variety: Using genetic modification (GM), scientists at Delhi University’s Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP) created the hybrid mustard DMH-11, which contains two alien genes isolated from a soil bacterium called Bacillus amyloliquefaciens (‘barnase’ and ‘barstar’ genes).
- Importance: Mustard varieties in India have a limited genetic base. The barnase-barstar system allows for the creation of hybrids from a broader range of mustards, including those from East Europe, such as ‘Heera’ and ‘Donskaja.’
- DMH-11 is also said to have yielded a 28% increase over Varuna in contained field trials conducted by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).
- New hybrid GM seeds have the potential to increase mustard yields to 3.0-3.5 tonnes per hectare, up from about 1.3 tonnes currently.
Opposition to granting DMH-11 GEAC clearance
- Encourage widespread herbicide use: The presence of a ‘bar’ gene makes GM mustard plants resistant to glufosinate ammonium, a weed-killing chemical.
- Opponents claim that by encouraging the use of chemical herbicides, this will result in the displacement of manual labour engaged in weeding.
- Endangered biodiversity: The second concern is that GM mustard will endanger or devastate honey bee populations. Mustard flowers provide nectar to honey bees and other pollinator insects.
- However, based on an examination of scientific evidence available worldwide, it appears unlikely that DMH-11 will have a negative impact on honey bees.
- Unfounded fears about genetically modified crops
- Previous reservations and objections: Concerns about GM crops are not new.
- These sentiments were expressed when India imported dwarf miracle wheat and rice seeds in 1966 to achieve food self-sufficiency through the Green Revolution, as well as when Bt Cotton was released in 2002.
- Positive experience: The success of Bt cotton in increasing yields and transforming India from an importer to the world’s second largest exporter is well documented.
- Furthermore, no adverse effects from the consumption of its oil and seed cake fed to cattle have been reported in the last 20 years.
The requirement for GM technology
- Addressing current challenges: Scientific innovations and their scaling are the best options for addressing today’s issues, as follows:
- Excessive use of natural resources (soil, water, biodiversity) o Falling factor productivity
- Importance of achieving sustainable development goals, particularly eradicating poverty and hunger
- Addressing the negative effects of climate change in a timely manner
- Global acceptance: Genetically modified maize, soybean, cotton, tomato, and canola are grown all over the world, with approximately 200 million ha currently under GM crop cultivation.
- These have been grown for many years in the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Australia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and China, in addition to India.
- For example, canola yields in Canada, China, and Australia are nearly three times higher than in India due to the use of GM hybrid technology.
- Growing demand: Using similar technology, Australia recently released herbicide-tolerant GM Indian mustard. This is to meet South Asian countries’ growing demand for mustard oil.
- No health hazards: It has been scientifically proven that consuming refined oil prevents protein from entering the human system. As a result, consuming GM oil is completely safe from a health standpoint.
- Cost-cutting: To meet the current deficit in edible oils (around 55-60%), India is currently importing 14-14.5 mt, resulting in a record foreign exchange outlay of $18.99 billion in the fiscal year ended March 31, 2022.
- Of this, 2.0-2.5 million tonnes of soybean oil and 1.0-1.5 million tonnes of canola oil are already genetically modified. As a result, we are already consuming GM oil, in addition to the 1.5 million tonnes of GM cotton oil produced domestically.
- Increasing yields: A major concern among Indian farmers is that mustard yields (an important oilseed crop) are low and have been stagnant for a long time at around 1,260 kg/ha, much lower than the global average of 2,000 kg/ha.
- Mustard is grown on 6.0-7.0 million hectares, the majority of which are in Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, and Madhya Pradesh.
- As a result, the government’s decision to allow the production of GM Mustard hybrids will go a long way toward increasing yields while reducing pesticide use.
The way forward
- Government push: The Department of Agriculture (DoA) and ICAR must move quickly to create an enabling environment for testing the available Hybrid DMH 11 seed in the current rabi season. This must occur on several farmer’s fields in the mustard belt.
- The government must also encourage public-private partnerships to produce high-quality seeds in order to cover a larger area the following year.
- Encouraging scientists at ICAR institutes to develop new GM Mustard hybrids on a mission mode is also necessary.
- New paths: Allowing the production of GM Soybean and GM Maize in the future will also be a positive step, increasing crop productivity and profitability and doubling farmers’ income.
- A country that imports more than 60% of its edible oil requirements cannot afford to block technology for its farmers indefinitely.
- The decision to lift the unscientific ban on GM crops reflects the government’s determination to move towards Atmanirbhar Bharat.
- It also addresses our scientific community’s and farmers’ long-awaited desire to reap the benefits of innovative technologies.