Context : The Supreme Court on January 24, 2023 asked the Centre what will happen if the risk of the commercial release of GM Mustard crop is “irreversible”.
Background of the Case
- In October 2022, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) recommended the environmental release of the genetically-modified (GM) mustard (Brassica juncea) variety DMH (Dhara Mustard Hybrid)-11 for the development of new generation hybrids, paving the way for the commercialisation of the country’s first GM food crop.
- Supreme court is considering the petition challenging decision of giving the go-ahead to environmental clearance for genetically modified (GM) mustard
- Gene Campaign, a petitioner in the case, said they have made their submissions before the court and said their main concern was that the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) report, which warned about the dire effects of GM mustard, was not read out before the court.
- According to another petition by Aruna Rodrigues approval to GM mustard on October 25 is contrary to TEC report
- Another petitioner have earlier argued that the widespread use of herbicide-tolerant crops would encourage farmers to spray chemical weed-killers, leaving toxic chemical residue in large amounts on the crops.
About the current status of the case
- The government told the Supreme Court that genetically modified (GM) mustard was not developed as herbicide-tolerant (HT). It is neither necessary nor desirable for a farmer to use herbicides in the cultivation of GM mustard. A crop is referred to as an HT variety if its commercial trait is HT. DMH-11(Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11) is not such a crop since the HT trait in DMH-11 is of no commercial utility.
- The apex court said it was more concerned about the risk factors than anything else when it came to conditional approval granted by the Centre for the environmental release of GM mustard.
About genetic modification (GM) of crops?
- Genetic modification of plants involves adding a specific stretch of DNA into the plant’s genome, giving it new or different characteristics.
- This could include changing the way the plant grows, or making it resistant to a particular disease.
- The new DNA becomes part of the GM plant’s genome which the seeds produced by these plants will contain.
- For example if scientists want to produce wheat with high protein content and they decide to incorporate the high protein quality of beans into wheat. To make this possible, a specific sequence of DNA with protein-making trait is isolated from the bean (which is called the donor organism) and is inserted into the gene structure of wheat, in a laboratory process.
- The new gene or the transgene thus produced is transferred into the recipient cells (wheat cells). The cells are then grown in tissue culture where they develop into plants. The seeds produced by these plants will inherit the new DNA structure.
- Traditional cultivation of these seeds will then be undertaken and we will have genetically modified wheat with high protein content.
What is the legal position of genetically modified crops in India?
- In India, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) is the apex body that allows for commercial release of GM crops. In 2002, the GEAC had allowed the commercial release of Bt cotton. More than 95 per cent of the country’s cotton area has since then come under Bt cotton.
- Use of the unapproved GM variant can attract a jail term of 5 years and fine of Rs 1 lakh under the Environmental Protection Act ,1989.
GM crops are perceived to offer benefits to both producers and consumers.
- Genetic engineering can improve crop protection. Crops with better resistance to pest and diseases can be created. The use of herbicides and pesticides can be reduced or even eliminated.
- Farmers can achieve high yield, and thereby get more income.
- Nutritional content can be improved.
- Shelf life of foods can be extended.
- Food with better taste and texture can be achieved.
- Crops can be engineered to withstand extreme weather
What are the potential risks?
- Genetically engineered foods often present unintended side effects. Genetic engineering is a new field, and long-term results are unclear. Very little testing has been done on GM food.
- Some crops have been engineered to create their own toxins against pests. This may harm non-targets such as farm animals that ingest them. The toxins can also cause allergy and affect digestion in humans.
- Further, GM crops are modified to include antibiotics to kill germs and pests. And when we eat them, these antibiotic markers will persist in our body and will render actual antibiotic medications less effective over a period of time, leading to superbug threats. This means illnesses will become more difficult to cure.
- Besides health and environmental concerns, activists point to social and economic issues. They have voiced serious concern about multinational agribusiness companies taking over farming from the hands of small farmers. Dependence on GM seed companies could prove to be a financial burden for farmers.
- Farmers are reluctant because they will have limited rights to retain and reuse seeds.
- Their concern also includes finding a market that would accept GM food.
- People in general are wary of GM crops as they are engineered in a lab and do not occur in Nature
GM crops in India
- Bt cotton is the only genetically modified (GM) crop that has been approved for commercial cultivation in 2002 by the Government of India. Long term studies were conducted by ICAR on the impact of Bt cotton which did not show any adverse effect on soil, microflora and animal health. More than 95 per cent of the country’s cotton area has since then come under Bt cotton.
- Bt Brinjal resistant to brinjal shoot fly developed by M/S Mahyco in collaboration with University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad; Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore and ICAR-Indian Institute of Vegetable Research, Varanasi was approved by GEAC in 2009 but due to 10 years moratorium imposed on GM crops by the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) appointed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, no further action on commercialization has been taken.
- GM mustard Dhara Mustard Hybrid 11 (DMH 11) developed by Delhi University is pending for commercial release as GEAC has advised to generate complete safety assessment data on environmental bio-safety, especially effects on beneficial insect species
Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee
- The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) functions under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC).
- It is responsible for the appraisal of activities involving large-scale use of hazardous microorganisms and recombinants in research and industrial production from the environmental angle.
- The committee is also responsible for the appraisal of proposals relating to the release of genetically engineered (GE) organisms and products into the environment including experimental field trials.
- GEAC is chaired by the Special Secretary/Additional Secretary of MoEF&CC and co-chaired by a representative from the Department of Biotechnology (DBT).
- Mustard is one of India’s most important winter crops which is sown between mid-October and late November. The Indian mustard (B. juncea) is a member of the Brassicaceae family.
- Mustard is cultivated by around 6 million farmers in around 6.5-7 million hectares of land across the states of Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh.
What is DMH-11?
- Hybridisation involves crossing two genetically dissimilar plant varieties that can even be from the same species. The first-generation (F1) offspring from such crosses tend to have higher yields than what either parent can individually give.
- Such hybridisation isn’t easy in mustard, as its flowers have both female (pistil) and male (stamen) reproductive organs, making the plants largely self-pollinating. Since the eggs of one plant cannot be fertilised by the pollen grains from another, it limits the scope for developing hybrids — unlike in cotton, maize or tomato, where this can be done through simple emasculation or physical removal of anthers.
- By genetic modification (GM). Scientists at Delhi University’s Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP) have developed the hybrid mustard DMH-11 containing two alien genes isolated from a soil bacterium called Bacillus amyloliquefaciens.
- The first gene (‘barnase’) codes for a protein that impairs pollen production and renders the plant into which it is incorporated male-sterile. This plant is then crossed with a fertile parental line containing, in turn, the second ‘barstar’ gene that blocks the action of the barnase gene. The resultant F1 progeny is both high-yielding and also capable of producing seed/ grain, thanks to the barstar gene in the second fertile line.
- The CGMCP scientists have deployed the barnase-barstar GM technology to create what they say is a robust and viable hybridisation system in mustard. This system was used to develop DMH-11 by crossing a popular Indian mustard variety ‘Varuna’ (the barnase line) with an East European ‘Early Heera-2’ mutant (barstar). DMH-11 is claimed to have shown an average 28% yield increase over Varuna in contained field trials carried out by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).
- GM mustard has been a subject of intense debate in the country with both pro- and anti-GM activists placing their claims and counterclaims vigorously.
- Worried that a genetically modified mustard crop would impact honey production in India, honey cultivators have opposed the GM mustard variety and asked the government not to approve it for commercial cultivation claiming that it may adversely affect the livelihood of lakhs of farmers.
- The DMH-11 mustard variety is herbicide tolerant, allowing farmers to spray over the crops with weed killer without harming the crops. This has raised fears that farmers may resort to excessive use of toxic herbicides which can lead to weeds becoming resistant to them and the emergence of so-called superweeds. Critics are also concerned about herbicide residue on GM crops.
Why is the government pushing for GM Mustard?
- Mustard contributes 40 per cent of total edible oils production in India. By 2025-26 India will need 34 million tonnes of edible oils, which will put a significant pressure on the country’s foreign exchange reserves.
- Today, mustard is grown in 8 million hectares, with 1-1.3 tonnes yield per hectare. The government claims that transgenic seeds could potentially raise the yields to 3-3.5 tonnes per hectare while being resistant to pests that cause white rust.