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The Science of Jurisprudence of Genetically Modified Mustard

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09 December 2022, New Delhi: The Supreme Court of India has raised a very pertinent observation seeking compelling reasons for the release of GM mustard in its hearing held on 02 Dec 2022. In response, the scientific community has collated solid datasets and empirical evidence based on rigorous biosafety evaluation and closely supervised open field trials, and greenhouse/net house experiments on GM mustard in the last two decades.

“It is time that the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India must not turn indifferent to the most obvious and compelling reasons for the release of GM mustard. The case on GM crops is one of the longest pending cases in the Supreme Court of India. It serves the purpose of those who are ideological against technology, choice, and innovative practices in Indian agriculture, said Dr. CD Mayee, President of South Asia Biotechnology Centre, Jodhpur, Rajasthan.

Echoing Dr. Mayee’s observation, “Bhagirath Choudhary, Founder & Director of South Asia Biotechnology Centre pointed out that the frequent interventions and court orders in the past have caused a great deal of public distrust, demotivated regulatory system and demoralized scientific community greatly impacting the advancement of the science of biotechnology, product development and commercialization in India in the last twenty years”.

The scientific community firmly believes that reasoned arguments must consider the following facts and empirical datasets to arrive at an objective, factual and science-based judgment on GM mustard. 

Double Digits Inflation

Like soybean, groundnut, and other edible oil, the cost of a liter of mustard oil has doubled from Rs 90-100 per liter to Rs 180-200 per liter in the last ten years. The rise in edible oil prices has been a big concern for consumers. The surge in edible oil prices, in India and globally, as measured by the FAO sub-index for vegetable oil has risen sharper than the general food prices index in the last few years. In India, the CPI for edible oil, measured in terms of oils and fats in the food and beverages category of CPI peaked at an all-time high of 202.4 in May 2022 from a record low of 81.9 in Jan 2011 with a base benchmark of CPI 100 at 2012 (Refer Figure 1). The inflation in edible oil almost doubled in the last few years causing great suffering to the poorest of poor in society.     

Figure 1. India Consumer Price Index (CPI) registered the highest inflation in edible oils in Food and Beverages category, from 2012 to 2022

2012 to 2022

Import Dependence in Edible Oils

In 2021-22, India imported two-thirds of its edible oil, estimated at 14.1 million tons. In the past, edible oil imports peaked at 1.97 million tons which forced the then Govt of India to launch the National Mission on Oilseeds in 1987-88. The situation improved momentarily in the nineties. By early 2000-01, India registered an unprecedented surge in import of edible oil to the tune of 4.1 million tons; 6.7 million tons by 2010-11, and 15.6 million tons by 2015-16. Notably, the magnitude of import remained stagnant at 14-15 million tons per year which is equivalent to two-thirds of total edible oil consumption pegged at 21 million tons in 2021-22 (Refer Figure 2 below).

Figure 2. Trend in import of edible oil in India, 1980 to 2022 (in volume Metric tons)

Source: SEA, 2022 & MOA&FW, 2022; Analysed by South Asia Biotechnology Centre, 2022

Staggering Cost of Imported Edible Oil

India drained precious foreign resources of US$19.6 billion or Rs 1,56,800 crore in 2021-22 on imported edible oil consisting of palm oil, soybean, sunflower, and canola. The cost of imported edible oil was equivalent to 50% of India’s total agri-import of US$32.4 billion in 2021-22. In the past, India spent Rs 926 crore on imported edible oil in 1987-88, Rs 6,093 crore in 2000-01; Rs 29,860 crore in 2010-11; Rs 68,677 crore in 2015-16; Rs 71,625 crore in 2019-29 and Rs 1,17,225 crore in 2020-21 before reaching an all-time high at Rs 1,56,800 crore in 2021-22 (Refer Figure 3). An unprecedented surge in international prices of edible oil coupled with a deteriorating exchange rate in the last two years has caused spiraling inflation in the domestic edible oil market.    

Figure 3. Staggering cost of import of edible oil in India, 1980 to 2022 (in Rs Crore and US$ Billion)

Source: SEA, 2022 & MOA&FW, 2022; Analysed by South Asia Biotechnology Centre, 2022

Low Edible Oilseeds Yield

The edible oil yield shows a negative CAGR over the last 25 years in India. The yield of all oilseed crops is abysmally low. As low as one-third of global averages and sometimes the lowest in the world. For the last two decades, the yield of oilseed crops in India remained stagnant at around 1,100-1,200 kg per hectare. India produces total oilseeds of 35.9 million tons barely yielding 1,247 kg per hectare from total oilseed crop areas of 28.8 million hectares in 2020-21 (Refer Figure 4). Edible oil recovery at 8 million tons from 35.9 million tons of total oilseeds hardly meets even 35%-40% of the total edible oil requirement pegged at 21 million tons per annum. The situation will worsen in the future as the demand for cooking oil has been increasing year-on-year, with projected demand at 29.05 million tons by 2029-30.

Figure 4. Yield trend in oilseeds, mustard, and soybean in India between 2000 to 2021

Source: MOA&FW, 2022; Analysed by South Asia Biotechnology Centre, 2022

Global Edible Oil Competitiveness

Globally, the approval and adoption of genetically modified canola, an equivalent of mustard and GM soybean has not only saved economies from crop losses caused due to pests, diseases, and weeds but also has increased the competitiveness of farmers to produce edible oil at a much more competitive price than Indian farmers. Globally, genetically modified crops particularly edible oilseeds crops such as soybean and canola have been grown since 1996 in major edible oil-producing countries of Argentina, Brazil, the USA, and Canada. A sneak peek into the global adoption of GM edible oilseeds shows a robust adoption and acceptance of GM crops over 190.4 million hectares by 17 million farmers in 29 countries (Refer Figure 5).

Figure 5. Global adoption of GM soybean and GM canola, 2019-20

Source: ISAAA, 2019-20 (Hectarage based on FAO data on 2019)

Bracket of Edible Oil (GM & non-GM)

Like other big economies, India is one of the largest consumers of edible oil derived from genetically modified oilseeds both produced domestically and imported from different GM-growing countries. Of the 14.1 million tons of imported edible oils, GM soybean and GM canola constituted around 4.1 to 4.6 million metric tons, an equivalent of 30% of total imported edible oil (Figure 6). In addition, cotton oilseed is a major source of domestically produced cotton oil contributing close to 1-1.5 million tons to the edible oil pool in India. The majority of the cotton seed oil is derived from genetically modified Bt cottonseeds cultivated over 11.9 million hectares or 95% of total cotton growing areas in Northern, Central, and Southern cotton growing zones. In summary, India annually consumes around 5-6 million tons of edible oil in the form of soybean, canola, and cotton sourced from genetically modified plants without any adverse health effects. In addition, GM cotton oilseed cake or kapas khali constitutes almost one-third of total animal feeds, a major constituent of animal feed available at affordable cost.    

Figure 6. Constituents of edible oil basket in India, 2021-22

Source: SEA, 2022; MOA&FW, 2022; Analysed by South Asia Biotechnology Centre, 2022

Level up on Production Technology

India’s farmers are at a great disadvantage and have been denied access to technologies, and thus they are unable to compete in the global trade in oilseed grains, edible oil, and oilseed cake. Our farmers need to level up on production technologies as they struggle to cope with pests, diseases, and vagaries of climate change that are more severe in tropical agro-climatic regions such as India. Increasing the production of oilseeds is an absolute necessity to increase the flow of edible oil. In the past, India has made some progress on crop improvement with the best of breeding efforts coupled with All India Coordinated Research Projects on mustard, soybean, and other major oilseeds crops. However, the self-pollinated nature of oilseeds makes it extremely difficult to harness the genetic potential of diverse germplasm. On the contrary, the competing edible oil-producing countries have deployed a series of advanced GM technologies to increase the yield of canola and soybean, which now dominate global trade in edible oil, oilseeds, and animal feed.

GM Mustard is a Platform Technology

It took a decade of rigorous scientific assessment and public scrutiny before GEAC approved the environmental release of hybrid DMH-11 and its parental line — a new genetic system of heterosis breeding for developing cost-effective, 100% fertile, and high-yielding mustard hybrids under the supervision of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). GM mustard hybrid, DMH-11 is the first-generation mustard hybrid based on the Barnase-Barstar system developed by Dr. Deepak Pental at a time when there was no CMS system available for producing mustard hybrid in early 2000, is a proof-of-concept showing comparative yield advantage over its parent Varuna variety. The deregulation of GM mustard Barnase-Barstar system technology is expected to give impetus to the mustard breeding program by both the public and private sectors resulting in the introduction of high-yielding and superior mustard hybrids capable of revolutionizing mustard farming and edible oil production in the country (Table 1).

Table 1. Global deployment of advanced GM technologies to increase Canola production, 1996 to 2022

Trait/Stacked Trait(s)Gene(s)/HerbicideNos of Approved EventsDevelopers/Trade NameCommercial Approval
·       Multiple Mode Herbicide Tolerance
·       Pollination Control System
·       Stacked Herbicide Tolerance & Pollination Control System
·       Modified Product Quality 
Bar, Barnase & Barstar; Glyphosate; Glufosinate35  Bayer CropScience; Monsanto; Pioneer/Dupont InVigor; LibertyLink; Navigator; TruFlex; Roundup ReadyCanada; USA; Australia
Source: FAO, 2022; Analysed by South Asia Biotechnology Centre, 2022

Ownership of GM Mustard

NDDB and Delhi University held around 10 patents on modified Barnase-Barstar pollination control systems and seed production methods on Indian mustard obtained between 2004 to 2015 (Table 2). These patents were filed and granted in multiple mustard/canola growing geographies of Australia, Canada, the EU, and the USA. The NDDB and Dept of Biotechnology (DBT) funded the entire R&D and rigorous biosafety assessment costing Rs 90 crores to the mustard (Brassica) group of the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP) of the University of Delhi resulting in 10 patents, a dozen of PhDs and a large number of greenhouse/net house studies and government-supervised large scale field trials before GM mustard was finally approved for environmental release on 18 Oct 2022 by GEAC of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MOEF&CC).  

Table 2: Patents on modified Barnase-Barstar GM mustard, 2004 to 2015

Patent TitlePatent NosCountries
Regulation of lethal gene expression in plants.68334942449250USA/2004Canada/2012
Method for producing insulator construct. 199542India/2006
An insulator construct for controlling leaky expression of a lethal gene.244022India/2010
A method for obtaining improved fertility restorer lines for male sterile crop plants was developed using transgenic approaches for hybrid seed production and a DNA construct for use in said method.77415411644506238973 USA/2010
EU/2009India/2010
A new cytoplasmic male sterility for Brassica species and its use for hybrid seed production in Indian oilseed mustard Brassica juncea (filed & obtained in USA, Canada, Australia, and India).20052760758,030548 B22,578,187Australia/2005USA/2011Canada/2015
Source: IP India, 2022; Analysed by South Asia Biotechnology Centre, 2022

Also Read: World Soil Day 2022: FAO publishes first global report on black soils

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