A ‘GM’ nut of edible oil crops; commencement of climacteric era for India

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By Satyajeet

New Delhi, November 7: The month of October 2022 had left an important headline across the tables; the scientific, business and the political ones. “Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC, Govt. of India) has approved the ‘environmental release’ of indigenously developed genetically modified (GM) Mustard Seeds”. The news sounds diminutive and confined just upto mustard seeds only, but interestingly, it is the milestone and commencement of an important era for India to become truly ‘Aatmanirbhar’ in the production of ‘edible oil’. It needs to be duly noted that the decision has paved the way for ‘commercial use’ of the country’s first indigenously developed GM ‘food crop’.

Looking at country’s ledger on edible oil, India is the world’s second-largest consumer and number one importer of vegetable oil. It spends tens of billions of dollars to import cooking oils every year, as the country meets 60% of its vegetable oil demand, majorly the Palm, Soyabean, Sunflower and Mustard, through imports from Malaysia, Indonesia, Brazil, Argentina, Russia and Ukraine. Surprisingly, the import growth in edible oils during the last decades rose to 174%; it was Rs. 1,17,000 crore in 2020-21, the highest ever expenditure. The domestic ‘consumption’ of edible oils is around 250 lakh tonnes, while the domestic ‘production’ is only 111.6 lakh tonnes. The gap between demand and supply of edible oils is about 56% and is met through imports. Over the recent decade, the per capita consumption of edible oil is increased up to 19-19.80 kg per person per annum from 15.8 kg.

As mentioned earlier, Palm, Soyabean, Sunflower and Mustard, occupies major portion in import of edible oil. Out of the above, the production of Mustard seeds has been increased from 91 Lakh Metric Tonnes (LMT) to 101 LMT during 2020-21. This is an opportunity for Mustard crop to bridge the gap between abnormal demand and supply chain of the edible oil. Therefore, the recent decision of the Union government approving the ‘commercial use’ of Genetically Modified seeds of mustard crop is, for sure, a boon to India’s fragile side of edible oil imports.

GM seeds are the seeds that have been modified to contain specific characteristics such as resistance to herbicides or resistance to pests. It is a technology that involves inserting Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in the genome of an organism. Mustard (Brassica Juncea) is an important oilseed crop of India, grown in around 6-7 million ha area during the rabi season mostly in the states of Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, and Madhya Pradesh. The average mustard yield in India is 1-1.3 tonnes/hectare. This has remained stagnant for almost two decades. Globally, yields of mustard have considerably increased with the introduction of hybrids. More than 90% of the mustard crop in Canada, grown in around 8.7 million ha, is under hybrids. Most of the Mustard grown in China and Europe is also hybrids.

Australia, in October 2022, also released herbicide tolerant GM Indian mustard to meet the increasing global demand of edible oil. It is being said that GM Mustard or Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11) seeds could yield about 30% more than a traditional reference mustard variety. As per the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and Directorate of Rapeseed-Mustard Research (DRMR), hybrid DMH-11 could safely be grown in the farmers’ fields which kicks out probability of any anti-environment effect of this GM crop. On the contrary, the new Mustard variety endorses cross pollination on large scale- that brings ‘Bees’ in picture- which are responsible for 75% of the total pollination. Hence, the decision will also reduce the environmental footprints of agriculture, develop climate resilient crops, and thereby assure food and nutritional security of the country.

Earlier, GM cotton – Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt.) was the only GM seed that had been approved for commercial cultivation in 2002 by the Government of India. It helped transform India into the world’s top cotton producer and second-largest exporter of the fibre as output jumped fourfold. The new decision, of course, is the milestone for India and importantly, it will bring smiles for those kitchens that consumes edible oil on a daily basis irrespective of its price escalations, both, at domestic and international market. Considering the need of large population of the country, their nutrition requirement, scale of dependency on imports, potential of agriculture sector and opportunity in nearest future – the introduction of GM hybrid verities in mustard crop is more than mere approval but is the commencement of climacteric era for India.

(Views expressed in the article solely belongs to the author)

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