The adoption of science-based technologies for crop improvement such as genetic engineering for developing genetically modified (GM) crops as a supplement to conventional breeding methods has become an absolute necessity to address the burgeoning and complex challenge of achieving global food and nutritional security under the fast-changing climate. According to the global Food Security and Nutrition Report, 2019, it is difficult to achieve the ‘Zero Hunger’ target by 2030.
The emphasis needs to be on accelerating the pace of improving crops genetically. In order to increase food production and become self-reliant, we require superior crop varieties and hybrids that provide enhanced yields and wide adaptability across environments, and require fewer inputs of natural resources. The advent of the Green Revolution in the 1960s-70s resulted in enhanced food production from a mere 50 million tonnes in 1950-51 to over 300 million tonnes in 2020-21. However, new biotech/GM crops with improved traits are a must in order to mitigate climate change and produce nutrient-dense food.
More crops under GM
Genetic modification of crops using the available and vast genetic diversity in conjunction with traditional farming has been well documented for increased productivity, contributing to global food, feed, and fibre security. According to a report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) 2020, a total of 72 countries have adopted GM crops either as human food or animal feed, as well as for commercial cultivation (56% of the global GM crop area is in developing countries compared to 44% in industrial countries). GM crops have benefited more than 1.95 billion people in five countries (Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India and the United States) or 26% of the current world population of 7.6 billion. Bt cotton was commercialised as the first GM crop in India more than 20 years ago, and has been viewed globally as a great success story in terms of economic advantage to farmers and to the nation. Globally, genetic modification has expanded its reach, beyond the major four crops, maize, soybean, cotton and canola, to other economically important food crops for various traits such as insect and herbicide resistance, climate resilience and nutritional quality improvement.
Global economic gains contributed by GM crops (1996-2018) have amounted to $224.9 billion in economic benefits to more than 16 million farmers, 95% of whom are from developing countries. Further, GM food crops, since adoption in 1996 globally have been proven for their biosafety for the last 25 years and more.
In edible oil deficit, a focus on mustard
India faces a major deficit in edible oils, with 60% of its demand being met by imports. Mustard is one of the most important edible oil crops in India; however, its per hectare yield is very low when compared to the global average. Thus, increasing the productivity of mustard in the country is vital for the economic well-being of farmers and self-sufficiency in edible oil production.
Using genetic engineering, extensive research has been carried out at the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP), University of Delhi South Campus, to create a GM mustard hybrid, DMH-11 with higher vigour and yield — this will facilitate an increase in domestic production of edible oils as well as enhanced farm incomes.
The GM mustard hybrid is based on the barnase/barstar system, which works on the principle of removing male fertility in one parent and restoring it in the offspring. The herbicide tolerance gene has been deployed as a selection marker for developing the GM mustard. While the use of herbicides in herbicide tolerant (HT) crops has an advantage in terms of saving soil moisture and nutrients, besides effective weed control, the herbicide tolerance gene in GM mustard is primarily used for selecting genetically transformed lines, and for hybrid seed production.
On October 25, 2022, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India, made a landmark decision of approving the release of DMH-11 and its parental line for cultivation. This will help boost the vibrant genetic engineering research sector in the country and enable the generation of new crop varieties with improved traits. As the mustard varieties in India have a very narrow genetic base, the decision by GEAC to allow barnase-barstar-based hybrid production in mustard paves the way for the breeding of mustard hybrids not only for higher yields but also to ensure resistance to diseases and improve oil quality.
This advancement will benefit farmers by increasing yield per hectare, also leading to an increase in their incomes. The domestic consumption of edible oils is around 25 million tonnes, while the domestic production of mustard oil was approximately 8.5 million tonnes in the year 2020-21. India’s edible oil imports were approximately 13 million tonnes, which touched ?1.17 lakh crore in value terms. Cultivation of these GM mustard hybrids developed indigenously could help enhance farmers’ income, reduce the oil-import burden and help achieve much-needed self-reliance in edible oil production. The environmental release of DMH-11 marks the beginning of a new era in self-reliance and sustainability in agriculture. More improved GM food crops are needed to boost the profitability of Indian farmers.
Subhra Chakraborty is Director, National Institute of Plant Genome Research, Department of Biotechnology (Government of India), New Delhi. Ashwani Pareek is Executive Director, National Agri-Food Biotechnology Institute, Department of Biotechnology (Government of India), Mohali, Punjab. K.C. Bansal is Secretary, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, New Delhi and former Director, National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi