GMO Debate back in India as GEAC clears environmental release of GM Mustard

3rd March 2022. Bungamati, Lalitpur, Nepal. People working in the mustard and the wheat field in the outskirts of Kathmandu valley. The traditional Newari village is famous for its unusual mustard-oil harvesting process in which a heavy wooden beam is used to crush mustard seeds in order to extract the oil.

by Anu V. Pai

The debate over genetically modified (GM) crop is back in India with the country’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), on 18th October approving the field trials of GM mustard. The GEAC under the Ministry for Environment, Forest, and Climate Change, the apex
regulator of genetically modified plants and food in India, allowed the environmental release of Dhara Mustard Hybrid11 (DHM-11), a hybrid variant of mustard developed by the Center for Genetic Manipulation of Crop plants at the University of Delhi. If approved by the government, it will be the second crop after Bt. Cotton and first transgenic food crop to be approved for cultivation in India.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) are organisms whose genetic material has been altered or modified using genetic engineering techniques in a way that it does not occur naturally. GM crops are the ones that have undergone such gene alteration or modification and are used in agriculture in order to achieve desired traits like resistance to a particular pest, tolerance to drought conditions, enhance nutritional content, etc. GM crops are also referred to as genetically engineered (GE) plants, transgenic crops, Living Modified Organisms (LMOs), or biotech crops. While genetic modification has a long history, modern genetic modification took place in 1946 when scientists first discovered that the genetic material was transferable between different species, and in 1973.

Boyer and Cohen successfully engineered the world’s first GM organism. In agriculture, the first GM plants were antibiotic-resistant tobacco and petunia created by three independent research groups. China became the first country to commercialize GM tobacco in 1990 and in 1994, the US Food and Drug Administration approved Flavr Savr, a genetically modified tomato that became the first commercially growing GM food crop to be fit for human consumption.

Commercial production of GM crops officially started in 1996 and a number of transgenic crops like corn (maize), soybean, canola, cotton, etc. were introduced subsequently. More than two decades since the commercial introduction, GM crops are being grown in more than 30 countries globally.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a non-profit international organization that shares agricultural biotechnology, focusing on genetic engineering, as of 2019 approximately 17 million farmers across the world are cultivating GM crops. As per ISAAA, the most planted biotech crops in 2019 were soybean, maize, cotton, and canola. Although there was a 4% reduction in the planting of biotech soybean, it maintained its high adoption rate of 48% of the global biotech crops or 91.9 million hectares. This area was 74% of the total soybean production worldwide in 2019. Biotech maize occupied 60.9 million hectares globally, which was 31% of the global maize production in 2019. Biotech cotton was planted on 25.7 million hectares, covering 79% of the global area of cotton in 2019. Biotech canola occupied 10.1 million hectares in 2019, which was 27% of the total canola production worldwide. Besides soybean, maize, cotton, and canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, sugarcane, papaya, safflower, potatoes, eggplant, squash, apple, and pineapple were also planted in different countries.

Of the 29 countries that planted biotech crops in 2019, 19 countries were considered as biotech mega-countries, which grew at least 50,000 hectares. The USA remained the top producer of biotech crops globally, which planted 71.5 million hectares in 2019. Brazil landed on the second spot, with 52.8 million hectares.

India stood in the fifth position globally with 11.9 million hectares under GM crops in 2019 according to ISAAA data. Though India is one of the top five countries, commercial cultivation is limited to only a single GM crop. Bt. Cotton is the first and the only transgenic crop that is approved to be commercially cultivated in India currently.

In the year 2002, the GEAC approved the commercial cultivation of Bt. Cotton which was introduced by the US seed company Monsanto and Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco) in a joint venture- Mahyco Monsanto Biotech Limited (MMBL). Bt. Cotton is a variety of cotton that has been genetically modified to contain a gene of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a naturally occurring soil bacterium, to combat the common pest pink bollworm. Bt. Cotton Bollgard-I was introduced in 2002 and Bollgard-II in 2006. Since commercial cultivation started in 2002, BT. Cotton was widely adopted. Within a short span of time, there was a significant improvement in the production and yield of cotton and India became one of the top producers and exporters of cotton in the world. Currently, more than 90 percent of the cotton being cultivated is that of the GM variety.

Nearly two decades since the commercial cultivation of GM cotton was approved in India, a lot of debates and controversies around GM crops continue, and to date, no other crop has been approved. Though during 2009, the GEAC approved field trials of Bt. Brinjal hybrids were developed to provide resistance against fruit and shoot borer insects that widely hamper the brinjal crop and thereby reduce the use of insecticides. However, there was a furor over the same and the matter subsequently went to the Supreme Court of India, and an expert committee was set up to consider the same. Later, the Environment Ministry in 2010 put on hold the release of Bt. Brinjal due to lack of consensus and no objection certificates by the individual state government were made mandatory for field trial. In 2012, the Parliamentary standing committee on agriculture in its 37th report asked for an end to all GM field trials in the country. The expert committee set up by the Supreme Court of India, in the meantime, recommended a suspension of 10-years until regulatory and monitoring systems could be strengthened. Subsequently, new trials were put on hold. However, in 2014 the environment minister cleared the way for field trials and since then field trials of a number of crops including rice, wheat, sorghum, maize, groundnut, and cotton have been approved by the GEAC.

The advocates of GM crops put forward a number of reasons for why there is an imperative need for the adoption of transgenic crops. Increase in agriculture productivity as GM crops have high resistance to diseases, pests, insects, and herbicides as well as tolerance to extreme conditions like drought, heat/cold, etc., food security considering the growing world population, economic benefits like increase in farmers’ income, longer shelf-life, improved nutritional value in food crops, etc. are some of the key reasons. Yet, fears over the use of GM crops linger as many risks are associated with it, leading to stiff opposition. Since the gene transfer in GM crops occurs not in compliance with the tenant of nature, there may be many health and environmental effects associated with it which may prove harmful. GM crops may interbreed with other plants and contaminate the produce and gene pool, affecting biodiversity.

Since GM crops are engineered to their own toxins against pests or modified to include antibiotics to kill germs and pests, the presence of such toxins or antibiotics in the food chain may impact human/animal health. Apart from the environmental and health concerns, there are other social and economic impacts like farmers becoming dependent on seed companies for seed, the market for GM crops, etc. While there is a broad consensus that the cultivation of Bt. Cotton had created an encouraging impact on the production, yield, trade, and livelihood of farmers, but many studies point out otherwise. According to a study conducted by the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology (RFSTE), Bollworms are not affected by Bt. Cotton, nor are other pests, farmers still have to use pesticides, yields are nowhere close to promised figures, often lower than conventional cotton varieties, and net income from a Bt. Cotton crop is not higher than conventionally grown cotton.

The recent approval of GM mustard for environmental clearance by the GEAC and the Supreme Court of India asking to maintain the status quo following a petition filed in the top court challenging GEAC’s decision has again stirred the controversy surrounding GM crops. The DHM11 developed by Deepak Pental, a geneticist and former vice-chancellor of Delhi University, along with his team, is aimed at reducing India’s dependency on edible oil imports. India is one of the major edible oil importers and according to data from the Solvent Extractors’ Association of India (SEA), the value of imported edible oil stood at Rs.1.56 lakh crore during the oil year 2021-22 (November-October) against Rs.1.17 lakh crore in 2020-21, an increase of 34 percent. GM mustard is seen as one of the solutions for reducing dependency on imports.

Studies have shown that GM mustard increases yields by up to 30 percent and reduces farming costs. However, the opponents of GM crops point out that DMH-11 mustard variety is herbicide tolerant which may eventually lead to farmers resorting to excessive use of toxic herbicides that could in turn lead to weeds becoming resistant to them and the emergence of so-called superweeds. Concerns also have emerged over the herbicide residue in such crops and its impact on honeybees and other pollinators, and on soil microbial diversity, etc.

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