Why in news?
The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) had given approval for the commercial use of GM mustard. It can be released for commercial use once the minister for environment, forest and climate change approves the GEAC decision.
What is the issue?
Genetically modified crops have been a contentious issue in India for over two decades.
The issues raised are,
GM mustard was developed by Deepak Pental, professor at the genetic manipulation lab -Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP) – at Delhi University in 2002. But it took a long time to be tested in the field. Pental’s had lab received generous funding from the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) and the Department of Biotechnology.
What was the challenge?
The mustard plant is largely self-pollinated, making hybridisation difficult. To prevent self pollinating, the male part of the plant has be rendered sterile. Creating a male sterile line is a hard task that had occupied scientists around the world. In the 1990s, Belgian company Plant Genetic Systems (PGS) had already found a solution. They solved the problem by transferring bacterial genes to mustard.
How was the bacterial genes used?
To ward off competing bacteria, the soil bacterium Bacillus amyloliquefaciens uses a set of proteins produced by genes called barnase and barstar. Protein from the gene barnase degrades the genetic machinery of other bacteria. This bacterium also produces another protein, from the gene barstar, that binds to barnase and prevents self-destruction. When transferred to set of genes expressed in the pollen, the barnase protein makes the plant infertile. But when it is crossed with another plant that has bartar, the fertility was restored
There was one problem left: to separate the plants with the barnase-barstar system from normal plants. For this, scientists use a third gene called bar that provides resistance to a herbicide called glufosinate. If you spray glufosinate on a set of plants, only those containing the bar gene will survive.
So the three genes together – barnase, barstar and bar – produced a malesterility system with the ability to restore fertility in the next generation
The Centre for Advanced Research for Pre-clinical Toxicology at the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) conducted biosafety studies on GM mustard. The experiments showed that GM mustard is safe for commercial release. The experiments were reviewed by experts from government bodies like the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the Department of Biotechnology, the Indian Council of Medical Research and NIN and Delhi University.
According to Pental, the GM mustard hybrid called Dhara Mustard Hybrid 11 (DMH-11)is 20-30% more productive than the bestseller seed, Varuna.
Mustard is amongst the three largest oilseed crops of India with soyabean and groundnut being other two, but the yields have remained stagnant for many years. Currently, more than 60 per cent of the domestic demand of edible oil is met by imports. India have been importing GM oils (canola oil & soya oil) for decades.
With the GM technology, hybridisation is made possible and will help bring better hybrids to improve the mustard crop yield significantly.
The GM crop is resistant to herbicide glufosinate. Glufosinate is not yet approved for use in mustard fields, but farmers will be tempted to use it for weed control as the GM mustard is resistant to it.
After Bt cotton was approved in 2002, India has not approved any other genetically-modified crop for cultivation. In 2009, the GEAC approved Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation. This decision was overruled by then environment minister Jairam Ramesh, who put a moratorium on Bt brinjal commercialisation in 2010. In the process, he also changed GEAC’s name from approval committee to appraisal committee, thereby making the environment minister the final decision-maker.