After years of being in limbo, there is a surge of optimism around DMH-11, or Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11, a variety developed using genetic engineering techniques by Indian scientists and public funds. The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the apex regulator and an arm of the Environment Ministry, last week cleared the variety for environmental release. The seed can be grown in fields for producing more of its kind and is a precursor to it being approved for commercial release. DMH-11 employs genes from soil bacterium that makes mustard, a self-pollinating plant, amenable to being crossed with other varieties and producing hybrid varieties. Hybrid varieties are generally more vigorous and, in the case of mustard, an oil seed, will produce more oil. Despite having varieties of mustard, India continues to be a net oil importer due to poor yields. The food crisis due to the Ukraine war has only exacerbated the problem. Despite decades-long trials, mustard hybrids have not made it to Indian farmers because of activists opposed to genetic modification technology in principle and some farmer groups that believe them to be dangerous.
While several top scientists and agricultural experts have cheered the GEAC approval, the celebration ought to be muted. In 2017 too, GEAC had cleared the plant and then did a backtrack by introducing additional tests after protests. In 2009, GEAC had cleared Bt Brinjal, a transgenic food crop, only to be over-ruled by the UPA government — again after protests. Agriculture, being a State subject, may merit political scrutiny before a seed can be commercially released; however, in the case of transgenic technology, these decisions have only served to throttle technological progress. The hold, or the so-called ‘moratorium’, on Bt Brinjal persists and it was only in 2020 that GEAC approved fresh field trials, which were in effect repetitions of earlier tests. It is unclear if it will be available in the immediate future. The barnase-barstar system, used in DMH-11, is promising but already outdated given that cutting-edge technology such as CRISPR is in vogue. DMH-11 alone may not be the panacea for India’s edible oil crisis and rather represents a platform technology that requires seed companies to invest and develop their own hybrids. However, the uncertainty around regulatory policy regarding seed development hinders this. To signal transformation, the Government must second the approval by GEAC and restore the system, whereby scientific consent — rather than political considerations — determines the availability of products to farmers and consumers.
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