Explained | Genetically modified crops and their regulation in India

Strict regulations are in place to control threats to animal health, human safety, and biodiversity at large during the processes of development, cultivation and transboundary movement of GM crops.

October 31, 2022 01:22 pm | Updated November 01, 2022 07:08 pm IST

Farmers work in a mustard field in Ganderbal district. (File photo used for representation)

Farmers work in a mustard field in Ganderbal district. (File photo used for representation) | Photo Credit: PTI

The story so far: On October 18, the Environment Ministry’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) cleared the proposal for the commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) mustard. The GEAC had previously cleared the proposal in 2017, but it was vetoed by the ministry and the committee was told to conduct more studies on the GM crop. The GEAC’s recommendation will again go to the Environment Ministry for approval.

The latest GEAC approval allows for the environmental release of two varieties of genetically engineered mustard for developing new parental lines and hybrids under the supervision of the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR).

What is GEAC?

The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), is responsible for the assessment of proposals related to the release of genetically engineered organisms and products into the environment, including experimental field trials.

GEAC or people authorised by it have the power to take punitive actions under the Environment Protection Act.

What are genetically modified crops?

A genetically modified organism (GMO) is any living organism whose genetic material has been modified to include certain desirable techniques. Genetic modification has previously been used for the large-scale production of insulin, vaccines, and more.

Evolution of crop improvement

Evolution of crop improvement | Photo Credit: GEAC

In crops, genetic modification involves the manipulation of DNA instead of using controlled pollination— the conventional method to improve crops— to alter certain characteristics of the crop.

Soyabean, maize, cotton, and canola with herbicide tolerance and insect resistance are the most widely grown GM crops around the world. Other common genetically modified characteristics include virus resistance, drought resistance, and fruit and tuber quality.

To genetically modify a crop, the gene of interest is identified and isolated from the host organism. It is then incorporated into the DNA of the crop to be grown. The performance of the GM crop is tested under strict laboratory and field conditions.

GM crop development process

GM crop development process | Photo Credit: GEAC

GM crops in India

Indian farmers started cultivating Bt cotton, a pest-resistant, genetically modified version of cotton, in 2002-03. Bt modification is a type of genetic modification where the Bt gene obtained from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis is introduced into the target crop – in this case, cotton. Bt cotton is resistant to bollworm, a pest that destroys cotton plants.

By 2014, around 96% of the area under cotton cultivation in India was Bt cotton, making India the fourth-largest cultivator of GM crops by acreage and the second largest producer of cotton.

Cotton cultivation

Cotton cultivation

Regulatory framework in India

Strict regulations are in place to control threats to animal health, human safety, and biodiversity at large during the processes of development, cultivation and transboundary movement of GM crops.

Acts and rules that regulate GM crops in India include:

  • Environment Protection Act, 1986 (EPA)
  • Biological Diversity Act, 2002
  • Plant Quarantine Order, 2003
  • GM policy under Foreign Trade Policy
  • Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006
  • Drugs and Cosmetics Rule (8th Amendment), 1988
Regulatory framework

Regulatory framework | Photo Credit: GEAC

Broadly, the rules cover:

  • All activities related to research and development of GMOs
  • Field and clinical trials of GMOs
  • Deliberate or unintentional release of GMOs
  • Import, export, and manufacture of GMOs

What is GM mustard?

Dhara Mustard Hybrid (DMH -11) was developed by a team of scientists at Delhi University led by former vice-chancellor and genetics professor Deepak Pental under a government-funded project. It uses a system of genes from soil bacterium that makes mustard — generally a self-pollinating plant — better suited to hybridisation than current methods.

In September 2017, a feasibility report said that the developers of DMH-11 claimed a yield increase of 25-30% over non-hybrids, which was refuted by several NGOs.

However, even a yield increase of 25-30% “does not seem to be high enough to promote the introduction of IP and labelling requirements at all levels, especially at the levels of small and medium farmers as the consequence of introduction of such a system would considerably deplete the price preference that are expected, resulting from the increased yield,” the report added said.

The GEAC cleared “the environmental release of mustard hybrid Dhara Mustard Hybrid (DMH-11) for its seed production and testing as per existing ICAR guidelines and other extant rules/regulations prior to commercial release,” the minutes of itsOctober 18 meeting said.

Recommendations of the October 18 meeting

The GEAC has recommended:

  • Environmental release of “genetically engineered mustard parental lines bn 3.6 carrying barnase and bar genes, and modbs 2.99 containing barstar and bar genes”

(barnase and barstar are both single-chained proteins — barnase is an extracellular ribonuclease, and barstar is its intracellular inhibitor. The bar gene delivers herbicide resistance in plants.)

  • Environmental release of mustard hybrid DMH-11 for seed production and testing as per existing ICAR guidelines
  • Conduct field demonstration studies with respect to the effect of GM mustard on honey bees and other pollinators post-environmental release

The approval is limited to a period of four years, renewable for two years at a time based on a compliance report.

The response from farmers' associations

Left-wing farmers’ organisation All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) has welcomed the development related to GM mustard. General Secretary Hannan Mollah, however, said the control of the technology should remain with the governments and the public sector and extensive testing of the hybrid seed must be done by ICAR.

However, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) farmer body Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) opposed the move.

“The technology is mostly carcinogenic. It is a killer technology that kills soil, microbes, pollinators, almost all medicinal herbs and adversely affects crop diversity. It can also cause cancer in humans,” Mohini Mohan Mishra, All India General Secretary of BKS, said.

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