In Retrospect

Of profound fecundity

Conspiracy theories and apprehensions notwithstanding, experts opine that Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 is safe from health perspective and can enhance crop yield to the effect of addressing India’s steep trade imbalance in edible oil — saving large amounts of public money

Of profound fecundity

Global population is growing at an exorbitant pace. It crossed the historic 8-billion mark on November 15, and India is all set to become the world's most populous country next year by surpassing China.

Under the given circumstances, India is indeed struggling hard to meet the domestic edible oil requirements, forcing the country to spend a significant amount of money on the import of essential commodities as India's edible oil production has been stagnant at around 10 to 11 million tonnes (mt) for the last five years.

At a time when the country is celebrating Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav, and endeavouring to make India self-dependent, the sudden approval by the government to the environmental release of genetically modified (GM) mustard variety — Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH 11) — is a bold and calculative move aimed at mitigating the losses incurred on edible oils import, as India is highly dependent on Indonesia, Malaysia, Ukraine, etc for edible oil.

The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), which works under the Union Environment Ministry, cleared the proposal for the commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) mustard. As per the prescribed norms, the recommendation will now again go for the approval of the Environment Ministry, and if it gets approved by the ministry, the transgenic variety of mustard will be allowed for commercial release. It is pertinent to mention here that even after GEAC's approval in 2017, the Modi government had vetoed it and suggested that the GEAC should hold more studies on the GM crop.

According to the official notification, it was stated that a GEAC meeting, held on October 18, allowed the environmental release of two varieties of genetically engineered mustard, so that it can be used for developing new parental lines and hybrids under the supervision of the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR).

"The environmental release of Dhara Mustard Hybrid (DMH-11) for its seed production and testing as per existing ICAR guidelines and other extant rules/regulations prior to commercial release," the minutes of the meeting said, adding that the field demonstration studies on the effect of GM mustard on honey bees and other pollinators was also allowed to be conducted.

Even after the official notification in this regard, no statement was made either by the Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav or Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar. However, a team of scientists came out in open to defend the government's bold decision.

Commenting on the issue, a senior Environment Ministry official, who wished not to be named, said, "It's a matter of kisan, vigyan and anusandhan (farmer, science and research) and they (scientists) know it better than anyone else. So let them take the call. Once they are satisfied with the findings of the research, the government would support them in taking it forward as India doesn't want to be highly dependent on other countries to meet the domestic edible oil needs."

India meets around 60 per cent of its annual edible oil requirements via imports, with annual imports being around 13-14 million tonnes (mt). India imports palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia while soybean and sunflower are imported from Ukraine, Argentina and other countries.

In comparison to the rise in demand, the production of edible oil has not increased proportionally, as the country's edible oil production was in the range of 10.3 mt to 11.6 mt between 2017-18 and 2021-22 while demand had been in the range of 24-25 mt — resulting in rise in imports. The value of edible oil imports rose from Rs 0.62 trillion in 2018-19 to Rs 1.5 trillion in 2021-22, and due to softening global prices since May, when Indonesia lifted a temporary ban on palm oil exports, there is a possibility of decline in value of edible oil imports in the current fiscal.

Experts have claimed that the average yield of mustard, which has a share of around 40 per cent in the country's edible oil production, has been around 1.5 tonne per hectare and, through multiplication of seeds for genetically modified DMH-11, the yield may increase by 25-30 per cent.

"The decision to approve GM mustard is very appropriate as production of edible oil is not increasing in proportion to the rise in demand. We are hopeful that the introduction of GM mustard hybrid would increase the yield by around 25 per cent in the next couple of years and help the country in achieving domestic edible oil production of 17 mt as envisaged by 2025-26," said KC Bansal, secretary, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS). Bansal further said that the DMH-11 variety could boost mustard yield to close to 2.5/tonne per hectare from current level of 1.5 tonne/hectare.

DMH-11 is expected to help fight orobranchial weed which hits yield of crop in 2.5 mh out of around 7 mh cultivated area; and herbicide tolerant trait of the variety could be inserted into existing varieties for increasing their yield.

According to Trilochan Mohapatra, president, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS), the Agriculture Ministry, through Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), will be conducting large-scale demonstrations and field trials across key mustard growing regions through multiplication of seeds of DMH 11, and study its efficacy.

Hailing the decision, RS Paroda, who is a former director general of ICAR, said that the recent clearance by the government for the release of GM mustard hybrid DMH 11 is a bold decision in the best interest of our farmers and the nation.

"The decision to remove the unscientific ban on GM crops reflects the determination of the government to move towards Atmanirbhar Bharat. It also meets the aspirations of our scientific community, and farmers can derive the benefits of innovative technology," he said, adding that "the fear and reservations expressed in some quarters are scientifically unfounded. In fact, such objections are not new. They were also expressed when we imported the dwarf miracle seeds of wheat and rice to achieve food self-sufficiency through the Green Revolution."

"I came up against the same concerns as the head of ICAR when Bt Cotton was being released. Science-led revolutions have given India self-respect and global recognition. We are today a major exporter of agricultural produce, including cereals and cotton, fetching more than USD 50 billion annually", Paroda opined.

Mustard seeds are grown only in rabi season. The sowing starts from October while harvesting begins in March. Mostly, mustard is grown under the rainfed conditions in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, etc, where yields fluctuate. In the 2021-22 rabi season, the mustard was sown in around 9.1 million hectares (mh). Other main oil seeds — soyabean and groundnut — have shares of 24 per cent and 7 per cent respectively, in domestic production.

Soon after GEAC's approval for environmental clearance of DMH-11 as a hybrid seed variety — which has been developed by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants at the Delhi University — scientists, farmers and activists have started taking their sides to support or oppose the move through their own set of thoughts.

The anti-GM group reached the Supreme Court to put the trial on hold, while a pro-GM group approached the top court to seek a moratorium on the environmental release of GM mustard. The matter is now listed to be taken in the apex court on November 29.

Prior to the anti-GM group reaching the Supreme Court, Rajasthan's Bharatpur-based Directorate of Rapeseed-Mustard Research (DRMR), which has been tasked to conduct yield evaluation study, has sown the seeds of GM mustard at six different locations.

Talking to Millennium Post, DRMR Director PK Rai said, "As I see it from a scientist's perspective and the Directorate of Rapeseed Mustard Research, I find this as a technology that we can use to develop high-yielding varieties. If an existing variety gives a yield of 28-29 quintals per hectare, it can be converted into high-yielding hybrids using this technology."

On sowing of seeds, Rai said, "We got the seeds on October 22 and started sowing the seeds. Till the matter was listed in the apex court on November 3, the seeds had already been sown for evaluation of yield."

"We had received two kg of DMH-11 seeds and had planned to use 50 grams of seed in each of eight field trial plots, but could only plant it in six locations as it had not been sown at the other two places due to the listing of the matter for hearing on November 3."

Rai further added that 600 grams of seeds have already been sown in two demonstration plots. Besides, field trials and planting of DMH-11 seeds were done following a directive from the ICAR.

'Giriraj', 'Pioneer 45S46' and 'RBM-19' are the main mustard varieties and hybrids grown in the country. Also, mustard is grown around 8-9 million hectares of land in the country.

On the issue, noted social and farmer activist Kavitha Kuruganti has stated that there is no evidence that it will yield more than existing hybrid varieties. According to her, another key concern with DMH 11 is that it's an herbicide-tolerant crop.

Expressing her concern over the adoption of GM mustard, Kuruganti said, "Environmental release and large-scale adoption of GM mustard can result in yield declines instead of yield increase. In a situation where India already plants higher-yielding varieties, it is likely that DMH-11 will actually drag down the country's yields. Further, spread of sterility traits will bring losses to farmers. Herbicide spray drift will also destroy neighbouring non-GM mustard and cause more losses."

Smelling a corporate conspiracy in the environmental release of GM mustard, independent agriculture policy analyst Indra Shankar said, "Why Indian taxpayers' money is being used to promote Glufosinate-Basta herbicide? India's GM mustard uses the bar-barnase-barstar systems, which are a Bayer-patented technology, and make Indian 'swadeshi' mustard tolerant to their herbicide."

"With the introduction of GM mustard, India will be GM contaminated, as the traits may cross over to other brassica varieties. India is home to mustard diversity and by introducing a GMO we would risk overturning thousands of years of genetic evolution. It's not only mustard, bee and honey production that will also be impacted. The government must remember the voice of Anil Madhav Dave (former environment minister) and his formula of socio-economic and agrarian analysis before the release of the crop," he said.

Controversy over GM crops is not new as, when Bt cotton was introduced, several protests were held against its rollout, but it's the same Bt cotton that is bringing foreign exchange to the country through its export. Now, farmers have started to demand technology improvement in Bt cotton to enhance the yield.

The other conspiracy theory that is doing the rounds in the case of GM mustard is that the strong lobby of edible oil importers is not in favour of adoption of GM mustard, as the move would uproot their decades old lucrative business. The government had faced the same resistance when the PM had launched the flagship National Mission on Edible Oils - Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) on November 30, 2021.

India is currently importing around 13 million tonnes of edible oil at a cost of Rs 1.17 lakh crore to the exchequer. Interestingly, of this, 2.0-2.5 mt soybean oil and 1.0-1.5 mt canola oil is already GM. Hence, there is nothing new about the consumption of GM. Besides, the 1.5 mt of GM cotton oil produced domestically is also in the consumption cycle.

"Moreover, it is scientifically proven that the consumption of refined oil does not allow any protein to enter the human system. So, the consumption of GM oil is completely safe from a health point of view," Paroda said.

Genetically modified maize, soybean, cotton, tomato and canola are grown across the world, and the area currently under GM crops is about 200 m ha. Besides India, these have been grown for many years in the US, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Australia, Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and China.

Views expressed are personal

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