Nod to GM Mustard -a step towards accelerating agriculture advancement
It is a very progressive step that through these new technology advances of genetic engineering and gene editing in agriculture, we have not just developed improved crops but platform technologies, tools and processes which give us the ability to have many more improved crops developed in a short period of time. This accelerated agricultural advancement not only allows the country to meet its own demand of improved, high-yielding, nutritionally improved crops but makes the country ready for exports.
Science-led innovations have revolutionized the development agenda globally across sectors. The impact of science and new technologies on society has been experienced by humanity in the recent pandemic. Technology is also a key driver for meeting our Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is imperative that we keep pace with the fast-moving technology advancements for accelerating our economic and social progress.
Improved agriculture has seen major technology infusions since the Green Revolution, when new high-yielding varieties (HYVs) of rice and wheat were made available to our farmers with new agricultural farming practices of fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation systems and other such technological advances. The impact was seen on increased farmers’ income, reduced poverty and hunger, and improved food and nutritional security. The increased production and productivity also gave the country a position of a food grain producer and exporter, moving away from the net importer status.
Our researchers have continuously been striving hard to build technological competence for the development and adoption of the fast-changing technology landscape to ensure that our farmers are not deprived of any technology advancement. We have in the country today a very well-developed agriculture and biotechnology research and development ecosystem which focuses on building capacities both in terms of skilled researchers and cutting-edge infrastructure. Our policy environment today is also highly favourable for high-risk investment in new innovations and working in an all-inclusive manner, encouraging the public-private partnership (PPP) model of engagement of industry and academia and also promoting a vibrant and robust start-up ecosystem.
The recent decisions by the government releasing the guidelines for the safety assessment of genome-edited crops and allowing the environmental release of genetically modified (GM) mustard are very positive and encouraging for the research and scientific community and for the growth of our agriculture benefiting the farmers. Not only does this now encourage cutting-edge research but also allows new and improved crops to be made available in the hands of our farmers.
GM technology has a huge potential and has been adopted largely by over 71 countries. It is being used on nearly 200mn hectares (ha) of land. The potential of these technologies has been well established both in terms of human and environmental safety and they have shown great promise in terms of increased yield, biotic and abiotic stress resistance, increased nutritional quality and climate resilience.
The long-awaited decision of the regulator GEAC (Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee) of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) on 25 October 2022 has allowed the environmental release of transgenic mustard hybrid DMH-11 and parental lines bn 3.6 and modbs 2.99 containing barnase, barstar and bar genes for developing new parental lines and hybrids. This major decision will go a long way in improving the crop yield and nutritional quality, considering that today India meets nearly 55-60 per cent of its edible-oil demand through imports. To meet this increasing domestic demand, the deployment of GM mustard hybrids is today the best available option.
The GM mustard developed by Prof Deepak Pental’s group at Delhi University after more than three decades of research is the first food crop to be approved for environmental release in India. The only other GM crop approved for cultivation is Bt Cotton, which was cleared in 2002 and today covers nearly 80 per cent of the cotton-growing in farmers’ fields. A study indicates that the GM crop of Bt cotton in India has reduced chemical insecticide use by 37 per cent and increased crop yields by 22 per cent and farmer profits by 68 per cent.
GM mustard lines and the first hybrid DMH-11 have gone through very stringent biosafety tests in India. DMH-11 has demonstrated the potential to increase the per hectare yield by 25-30 per cent over traditional varieties. In the field trials conducted during the biosafety testing, the hybrid DMH-11 was found to yield 28 per cent more than the mustard mega variety Varuna and 37 per cent more than the zonal check varieties. Mustard is a self-pollinating plant and this technology allows the development of a very robust hybridization system for mustard to make available improved hybrids to the farmers.
GM mustard contains three transgenes — bar (a marker gene, that confers resistance to herbicide Basta), barnase (causes male sterility or MS) and barstar (leads to fertility restoration or RF) — which have been isolated from a soil bacterium Bacillus amyloliquefaciens. These three genes were used first in rapeseed, a sister crop of mustard, for hybrid seed production. The MS and RF lines and their hybrids in rapeseed have been released and grown in Canada since 1996, in the US since 2002 and in Australia since 2007. With a versatile MS, RF system available, more productive hybrids and those with better oil and meal qualities will follow.
The decision of the Government in March 2022 to release biosafety guidelines for the safety assessment of genome-edited crop plants was also a very significant positive indication of our emphasis on new technology advancement for agriculture improvement for meeting our food and nutritional security demands.
The COVID pandemic has been the largest crisis faced by humankind in recent times, yet there was a lot of learning. We could understand the importance of science-led innovations and their impact on society. We also witnessed the strength of a robust and vibrant research and translation ecosystem and the power of collaboration. These collectively helped us fight the COVID war with the indigenous development of diagnostics and a large portfolio of vaccines. This learning is important in the context of other sectors, especially agriculture. We must prepare a technologically strong and robust ecosystem to have improved crop varieties delivered in the hands of our farmers to meet our growing food and nutrition demands.
It is a very progressive step that through these new technology advances of genetic engineering and gene editing in agriculture, we have not just developed improved crops but platform technologies, tools and processes which give us the ability to have many more improved crops developed in a short period of time. This accelerated agriculture advancement not only allows the country to meet its own demand of improved, high-yielding, nutritionally improved crops but makes the country ready for exports — a true fulfilment of the vision of Atmanibhar Bharat (self-reliance for the country) and new technologies and products for the world.
(Dr Renu Swarup is former Secretary to the Government of India, Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science & Technology.)