Secretary, DARE and DG, ICAR Dr Himanshu Pathak today issued a detailed statement on various issues of GM mustard

Secretary, DARE and DG, ICAR Dr Himanshu Pathak today issued a detailed statement on various issues of GM mustard, saying that the recent approval for environmental release of Genetically Modified (GM) mustard DMH 11 and its parental lines by GEAC, has attracted the attention of press and public at large.

There are many myths that are being propagated in relation to DMH 11 approval by the opponents of GM. All the National agencies and public research systems with expertise in the areas of agriculture, health including modern and ayurvedic science, environment & ecology are officially and formally involved in the risk assessment of the product for its being safe to humans, animals and environment.

This Statement is therefore being issued in public interest to clarify that any opinion or article published on the subject by anyone not authorized or former employees of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) different from the stated documentations and decisions made by the regulatory authorities functioning under the EPA (1986) are not endorsed by the Council and are subjectable to any administrative procedures required in public interest.

GM technology is a disruptive technology capable of bringing any targeted change with in the crop variety to overcome a problem that is difficult or impossible to achieve that are also safe to humans, animals and environment. Thus, the GM technology has imminent potential for the much-needed revolution in Indian agriculture. It is important to look at the current scenario particularly in relation to domestic production, requirement and import of edible oils in the country.

Atamnirbharata in edible oil- The need of the hour:

India’s import of edible oils is on continuous rise to meet the domestic demand. During 2021-22, we spent Rs.1,56,800 crore on import of 14.1 million tonnes of edible oils consisting of mainly palm, soybean, sunflower and canola oils, which is equivalent to two-thirds of India’s total edible oil consumption of 21 mt. Therefore, self-sufficiency in edible oil is essentially required to reduce the forex drain on agri-import.

Shortfall in domestic production and challenges:

Productivity of oilseed crops viz., soybean, rapeseed mustard, groundnut, sesame, sunflower, safflower, niger and linseed in India is much lower than the global productivity of these crops. During 2020-21, India had total area of 28.8 million hectares (ha) under oilseed crops with total production of 35.9 million tonnes and productivity of 1254kg/ha, which is way lower than the global average. Edible oil recovery of8 mt from 35.9 mt of total oilseeds hardly meets even 35-40 per cent of the total edible oil requirement pegged at 21 mt per annum (mtpa). The situation will worsen in the future as the demand for cooking oil has been increasing year-on-year, with projected demand at 29.05 mt by 2029-30.

Rapeseed-mustard is an important oilseed crop in India grown on 9.17 million ha with total production of 11.75 million tons (2021-22). However, this crop suffers from low productivity (1281 Kg/ha) compared to global average (2000 kg/ha) Disruptive technological breakthrough is needed for enhancing productivity of oilseed crops in general and Indian mustard in particular in the country.

Why hybrids are needed?

Crossing of genetically diverse parents results in hybrids with increased yield and adaptation, a phenomenon known as hybrid vigourorheterosis which has been widely exploited in crops like rice, maize, pearl millet, sunflower and many vegetables. It has been convincingly demonstrated that hybrids in general show 20-25 per cent higher yield over the conventional varieties across the crops. Hybrid technology can play an important role in enhancing the productivity of rapeseed mustard in the country.

Why Barnase/Barstar System:

The hybrid seed production requires an efficient male sterility and fertility restoration system. The currently available conventional cytoplasmic-genetic male sterility system in mustard has limitations of breakdown of sterility under certain environmental conditions leading to lowering of seed purity. As a consequence, the Ministry of Agriculture through Office Memorandum No. 15-13/2014-SD- IV reduced the usual purity standard of hybrid seeds of rapeseed and mustard from 95% to 85% under section 6(9) of the Seeds Act, 1966 in 2014.

The genetically engineered barnase/barstar system provides an efficient and robust alternative method for hybrid seed production inmustard and it has been successfully deployed in countries like Canada, Australia and America for many decades. In India, the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP), University of Delhi South Campus, New Delhi has made a successful attempt with some alterations in the barnase/ barstar system which culminated in the development of GM mustard hybrid MH11 which has undergone the required regulatory testing processes during 2008-2016.

Whether DMH 11 has significant yield gains?

DMH-11 has been tested for three years against national check Varuna in confined field trials at multiple locations in India. The field trials were conducted to assess the impact on human health and the environment according to the stipulated guidelines and applicable rules. DMH-11 showed approximately 28 percent more yield than the national check.

After experts’ opinion, biosafety data examinations and long scientific deliberations, during the 147th meeting of Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, the environmental release has been given to   DMH 11 and its parental lines. However, it is more than a decade when this hybrid was evaluated, it is relevant to test its performance against the currently grown hybrids and varieties as check in the national trials under the All-India Coordinated Research Project on Rapeseed and Mustard as per ICAR guidelines and only if DMH 11 is found significantly superior, it will be released for commercial cultivation. This is what is precisely recommended by the GEAC. However, certain group of people opposing the technology, are unnecessarily dragging the discussion around yield advantages, no one claims that DMH 11 per se, will solve the problem of edible oil import, however, the commercial release of the hybrid DMH 11 is subject to its testing and performance against the present day used check varieties/ hybrids in trials.It is important to note that, the environmental release of parental lines of DMH 11, will help the mustard breeders to deploy the robust and versatile genetically engineered Barnase/ Barstar system of hybrid seed production to develop new generation hybrids of mustard with greater yield advantages. This will be a step forward in addressing the problem of low productivity in mustard and import of edible oil in future.

The biosafety concern:

Another question being raised by the opponents is about the safety of three genes namely, Barnase, Barstar and Bar, which have been used in developing the technology. It is pertinent to mention that the extensive studies carried out on toxicity, allergenicity, compositional analysis, field trials, and environmental safety studies of GM mustard lines vs. their non-transgenic comparators have provided evidence that they are safe for cultivation and for food and feed use. Visitation of bees to the transgenic lines is similar to the non-transgenic counterparts as per the data recorded during the trials,” the statement added.

Studies have also established that the bees present in the transgenic lines are similar to the non-transgenic counterparts as per the data recorded during the BRL-I and BRL-II trials conducted over three growing seasons at multiple locations as per the protocols approved by RCGM and the GEAC. The biosafety data generated during the Biosafety Research Level Trials is as per the protocols approved by GEAC where all the issues raised were addressed adequately. The current approval has been given based on the international status on growth in honey production and number of bee colonies, particularly in Canada, which has 95 per cent of rapeseed area under Barnase/Barstar based hybrids. However, as a precautionary principle, the GEAC has directed the developers to generate data on effect of GM mustard on honeybees and pollinators during first two years of release.

Will DMH 11 promote herbicideuse to favourMNCs:Another lame allegation being made by opponents is that DMH11 will promote herbicide use,thus,favouring MNCs into herbicide manufacturing. It is clarified that the Bar gene that confers resistance to herbicide glufosinate has been used in GM mustard for two reasons, firstly as a selectable marker in tissue culture during development process and secondly, the herbicide tolerance trait of the Barnase female and Barstar male lines is to be exploited only in the hybrid seed production programme and not in the commercial cultivation of hybrids, as this trait has not been claimed by the applicant in the dossier. Accordingly, GEAC has given approval for herbicide use for hybrid seed production only that too after getting expansion of label claim as per extant rules, this has been specially mentioned the approval. It must be noted that even without herbicide tolerance, approximately 15000 tons of technical grade herbicides worth Rs. 7000 crores, are being used in Indian Agriculture in crops like rice, wheat and soyabean, and all these molecules are owned by foreign companies, does it mean that MNC are being favoured? This apprehension of opponentsis also ill-conceived with rationale.

Transgenic crops in national and global perspective:

Globally, GM crops are grown on 195 million ha area in more than 30 countries. In several countries, adoption rates of GM traits have been very high; more than 95% in some cases. There is no evidence of adverse effects reported from use of GM crops globally.Bulk of produce from GM crops like maize, soybean, etc. is exported from USA, Argentina and Brazil, the major GM crops growing countries to many countries including EUs as animal feed and these countries are earning substantial foreign exchange by exporting GM crops. As far as India’s export to EUs is concerned, Basmati rice is the major commodity and Govt. of India has already taken decision not to do any transgenic development work on Basmati considering export market. In the present context, the issue pertains to GM mustard, where India is already importing GM Canola oil for its domestic need, the current technology using Barnase/ Barstar based hybrids will help increase production of rapeseed mustard and thus reduce the import of edible oils. How this is going to affect export to EU is beyond understanding. This again shows lack of understanding on part of the opponents.

Bright future Ahead:

ICAR institutions and universities are deeply engaged in development ofGM cropsfor different traits such as biotic and abiotic stress tolerance, yield and quality improvement in 13 crops viz., Cotton, Papaya, Brinjal, Banana, Chickpea, Pigeonpea, Potato, Sorghum, Brassica, Rice, Flax, Wheat and Sugarcaneinvolving 11 Institutions through its “Network Project on Functional Genomics and Genome Modification” since 2006.

Currently in four crops viz., late blight resistant potato developed by ICAR-Central Potato Research Institute, Shimla; pod borer resistance in pigeonpea developed by ICAR-National Institute for Plant Biotechnology, New Delhi; insect resistant chickpea developed by ICAR-Indian Institute of Pulses Research, Kanpur and iron, and pro-vitamin rich banana developed by ICAR-National Research Centre on Banana, Tirchurapalli,the GM products with different traits are  in different stages from event selection to biosafety research level trials following all biosafety guidelines.

Further, to take the leads obtained from earlier project forward, ICAR has initiated a network project on All India Coordinated Research Project on Biotech crops which has both research and third partyevaluation components for the targeted traits as well as biosafety studies of six crops during 2021-26 plan period with a total budget outlay of Rs. 24.75 crores. Therefore, it is high timeand purely in public interest for the welfare if farmers and consumers of India that the positivity created in minds of both experienced and young budding scientists about the research in the area of transgenic development by this landmark decision of the Govt, to approve GM mustard is taken to logical conclusion.

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