Australia Approves GM Indian Mustard Tolerant to Herbicide. Why Must India’s GM Mustard Hybrid Wait?

Harvested mustard in Gwalior. Photo by Vivian Fernandes

With the Australian authorities approving the release of Indian mustard genetically-modified (GM) for herbicide-tolerance, it is only logical that the Indian government should allow the release of a high-yielding GM mustard hybrid developed by a team of Delhi University scientists led by Deepak Pental.

There is an expectation that the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) might again make a recommendation for release of Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11, (DMH-11) after Pental made a presentation to it August. In that meeting, GEAC set up an expert committee to examine his submissions that there is sufficient evidence that GM mustard has little impact on honeybees and other pollinators. The expert committee has reportedly given its report.

On 19 October, Australia’s Office of Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) approved the commercial release of BASF ’s Indian mustard with introduced genes derived from common soil bacteria. The approved hybrid is a cross between Indian mustard and GM canola. It has a bar gene that confers tolerance to glufonisate ammonium., a herbicide sold under the brand Basta which BASF acquired from Bayer in 2017. Australia had approved the release of GM canola in 2003.

OGTR has not imposed any conditions as, it said, the risk assessment concluded that the approved hybrid posed “negligible risk” to the health and safety of people or the environment.

Since mustard is largely self-pollinating, the crossing is done by inducing male sterility using barnase gene obtained from a bacterium that stimulates plant growth and suppresses soil-borne plant pathogens, according to ISAAA, an advocacy for crop biotechnology. After pollination, male sterility is restored with a barstar gene also derived from the same bacterium.

Pental’s team had also used the bar, barnase, barstar system to develop DMH-11 with funding from the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) and the Department of Biotechnology.

Mustard yield in India has increased from 481 kg per hectare in 1961 to 1.5 tonnes per hectare. This has been achieved through conventional pure line breeding. Further yield increases require the use of hybrids. Pental says DMH-11 yields 28 percent more than the popular Varuna variety.

Mustard hybrids can be developed conventionally through cytoplasmic male sterility. But this a tedious process. The sterility also tends to break down in certain conditions. GM technology is a quicker way of producing mustard hybrids.

GEAC has recommended the release of DMH-11 in May 2017 after the risk assessment concluded that the hybrid was safe for humans, animals and the environment. But under pressure from anti-GM activists, including the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, a part of the Sangh Parivar, then environment minister Harsh Vardhan directed GEAC to address concerns that the GM mustard hybrid might harm honeybees and pollinators. In August 2018, GEAC told Pental to conduct trials on five-acre plots at 2-3 locations to generate data on the impact of the hybrids on honeybees, other pollinators, honey and soil microbial diversity.

Pental did not undertake the study. He had reason to believe that it was a dilatory device to postpone a decision. Instead, he wrote a letter to GEAC and to the agriculture minister in May requesting release of the hybrid. GEAC sought the comments of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Department of Agricultural Research and Education (DARE). According to GEAC, they said the hybrid should be released. In the August meeting, Pental  presented an analysis of the literature on the impact on honeybees and pollinators in other countries. He said Canada, USA and Australia had not imposed any condition while approving the release of GM canola in 1996, 2002 and 2003 respectively. GM canola has been developed using the same bar, barnase and barstar system. He citied studies to assert that DMH-11 will not harm honeybees or pollinators.

It would be ironical if India did not allow cultivation of GM mustard while importing it from Australia. India imported 52,000 tonnes of rapeseed (Brassica napus) oil in the 12 months to October 2021, according to the Solvent Extractors’ Association. Canola is also Brassica napus. Indian mustard (Brassica Juncea) is the preferred oil in north and eastern India because of its pungency. Pental says canola also has pungency, but that trait has been removed though breeding.

Among oilseeds mustard has a high oil content, ranging from 31 percent to 46 percent. The Solvent Extractors Association had launched Mission Mustard in 2017 to increase mustard production. It said if Punjab planted mustard on a large scale, it could reduce extraction of ground water, which has dipped to alarming levels in many blocks of the state. This would also reduce India’s edible oil shortage.

Last year mustard was planted on 7.7 million ha. The production was 11.8 million tonnes and the average yield 1.5 tonnes per hectares.

In 2019, GM canola was planted on 10.1 million ha, or 29 percent of the global area under GM crops, as per ISAAA.  Imports meets 50-60 percent of India’s edible oil consumption. India imported 2.87 million tonnes of soybean between in the 12 months to October 2021. All, or almost all of imported soybean is genetically modified for herbicide tolerance and insect resistance.

Small quantities of Indian mustard are grown in Australia mainly in Central New South Wales and western Victoria. Australia needs herbicide tolerance in crops because of large farm sizes. Mustard can be grown in its dryer regions.

Pental said India also needs herbicide tolerant mustard, particularly in Rajasthan because of Orobanche (broomrape), a root parasite plant. He said two million hectares of mustard are affected by it.

(Top photo: harvested mustard in Gwalior. By Vivian Fernandes)



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