While it is yet to take a final call on allowing commercial cultivation of genetically modified hybrid mustard, the government appears favourably disposed towards planting of GM pulses.
A Group of Secretaries (GoS) on‘’Farmer Centric Issues in Agriculture and Allied Sectors’ — one of the eight constituted to deliberate on “important themes” following a meeting called by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on December 31 — has recommended “promotion and time-bound deregulation” in the case of two transgenic insect pest-resistant pulses.
The group has also backed the suggestion to set up an Office of Biotechnology Regulations (OBR) to strengthen the regulatory mechanism, even while efforts continue to finalise a fresh legislation to create an independent regulator, the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI). In the last seven years, three unsuccessful attempts have been made to get the legislation passed in Parliament.
Sources told The Indian Express that efforts to set up this new regulatory division, being modelled on the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator of Australia, are already under way. A Biosafety Risk Assessment Unit has been created and is functional for the last few months.
Earlier this month, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the existing regulatory body, deferred a decision on allowing cultivation of mustard amid protests by NGOs and activists. The Group of Secretaries has, however, made a “specific proposal” to promote the two GM pulses.
The first one is a GM chickpea (chana) developed by Assam Agricultural University, Jorhat, and licenced to Sungro Seeds Ltd, a sister concern of Jalna-based Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company. This transgenic crop, incorporating two genes (Cry1Ac and Cry2Aa) isolated from the Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt soil bacterium, is claimed to be resistant to the pod borer insect pest.
“The technology has shown [a] yield gain of 20-25% in greenhouse trials/field trials by minimising damage by the pod borer. Apart from this yield increase, reduction in cost of chemical pesticides application by 50% would add to the profitability of the farmer,” the report of the GoS, headed by Rural Development secretary Jugal Kishore Mohapatra, has said.
The second GM crop is a pigeon-pea (arhar) developed by the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) near Hyderabad. Containing a synthetic Bt Cry1Ab gene, it is resistant to the same legume pod borer, whose larvae feed on both arhar and chana.
The GoS has backed the commercialisation of both these transgenic crops keeping in view India’s growing dependence on import of pulses. In 2014-15, the country’s pulses imports of 4.58 million tonnes (mt) were valued at $2.79 billion. In the current fiscal, imports have already touched 4.41 mt for the April-December period, entailing a foreign exchange outgo of $2.96 billion.
The GoS report has estimated that the GM chickpea technology can potentially increase domestic production by 2 mt, just as ICRISAT’s Bt pigeonpea can reduce imports by another 0.75 mt. India’s total pulses production peaked at 19.25 mt in 2013-14, before falling to 17.15 mt in 2014-15 and an estimated 17.33 mt this year.
Supporters of GM technology have cited a similar argument of soaring edible oil imports – over 14.4 mt worth $ 10.5 billion in 2014-15 – for according clearance to the transgenic hybrid mustard developed by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants at Delhi University.
In another recommendation, the GoS has proposed the establishment of Crop Genetic Enhancement Network (CG Net) to access global knowledge in integrated molecular research and advanced breeding practices and use these to improve productivity of crops. The important crops to be targeted by the CG Net initially would include black gram, green gram, mustard, groundnuts, pigeon pea, chickpea, finger millet, wheat and rice.