Analyzing the approval of DMH-11
30, Nov 2022
Why in News?
- Concerns regarding the recent recommendation for approval for the environmental release of genetically engineered (GE) mustard (“DMH-11 hybrid”) in India. The recommendation was made by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC).
What is Dhara Mustard hybrid (DMH-11)?
- DMH-11 is a hybrid variant of mustard developed by researchers at The Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants, at the University of Delhi.
- It is a hybrid variant that was developed without transgenic technology.
- DMH-11 is a result of a cross between two varieties: Varuna and Early Heera-2. Such a cross wouldn’t have happened naturally and was done after introducing genes from two soil bacterium called barnase and barstar.
- The result is DMH-11 (where 11 refers to the number of generations after which desirable traits manifest) that not only has better yield but is also fertile. DMH-11 is a transgenic crop because it uses foreign genes from a different species.
What are the concerns?
- Not sufficient consideration: The potentially harmful long-term ecological and economic consequences of releasing DMH-11 have not received sufficient consideration.
- Details of trials not made public: Details of the mandatory trials to ensure food and environmental safety which is a prerequisite before environmental release have not been made public.
- A long-term assessment is yet to be done: a detailed long-term assessment of the potential social and economic benefits of using DMH-11, vis-à-vis its potential drawbacks, remains to be made. Without minimizing the importance of the last two aspects, the present note is restricted to highlighting the first aspect.
Examining the central Feature of DMH-11
- Gene for herbicide resistance (HT): A central feature of DMH-11 is that it carries a gene for herbicide resistance (also termed herbicide tolerance or HT). This fact has not received appropriate consideration.
- Negatives outcomes: The deployment of herbicide-resistant or HT crops has been accompanied by deleterious outcomes in several places including the US, Australia, and Canada (so-called developed countries) as well as Argentina (a developing country).
- Consequences of herbicide resistant weeds: The most well-established harmful consequence has been the spread of herbicide-resistant weeds across large tracts of agricultural land, which can spell disaster for the normal crop.
Critical and technical analysis of DMH-11
- On the use of Basta herbicide: The developers of DMH-11 have stated in their food and environmental safety assessment submission of 2016 that “Although GE mustard hybrid DMH-11 contains the bar gene conferring resistance to the herbicide Basta (phosphinothricin), Basta herbicide is required to be used only by seed producer for hybrid seed production (and) farmers are not required to spray Basta in the hybrid GE DMH-11 for weed control”.
Certain conditions placed by GEAC for environmental release of DMH-11:
- The GEAC in its recommendation made on October 18 for environmental release of DMH-11 has accepted this position and also placed certain conditions for environmental release.
- Usage only under control: Usage of any formulation of herbicide is recommended only under controlled and specified conditions exclusively for hybrid seed production.
- Requires necessary permission: Usage of any formulation of herbicide is not permitted for cultivation in the farmer’s field under any situation and such use would require the necessary permission as per procedures and protocols of safety assessment of insecticides/herbicides by CIB&RC (Central Insecticide Board and Registration Committee).”
- Knowing the facts GEAC ignoring the reports: In other words, GEAC assumes that farmers will use DMH-11 without adding herbicide even though they know that it carries a gene for herbicide resistance. It ignores the known fact that there have been numerous recent reports in the Indian media of the illegal use of unapproved herbicide-resistant crops, which has been brought to the notice of the government.
- Registers usage on a crop-wise basis is not enough: GEAC has considered the possible use of herbicide with DMH-11 merely as a matter of herbicide usage and referred its approval to the CIB&RC, which registers usage of herbicides on a crop-wise basis. It is not enough for GEAC to merely refer it for chemical registration since the CIB&RC is not the competent body for recommending approval of GM crops.
HT technology is different from conventional herbicides:
- On multiple counts, HT technology is qualitatively different from the conventional use of herbicides.
- They include the levels of herbicide used, which is much higher than in conventional use; its effect on the crop which is engineered to be resistant to the herbicide and thereby to tolerate much higher levels of herbicide and its agro-ecological impact including on agricultural biodiversity and insect populations.
- The scope of issues connected to use of herbicide with a herbicide-resistant crop places it squarely within the purview of GM regulation (that is, GEAC).
- Notwithstanding the statement of the developers and its implicit acceptance by GEAC, DMH-11 does meet the definition of an HT crop.
- The answers to two questions show this. Is DMH-11 herbicide tolerant? Yes. Is it a crop? Yes.
- The intent of the developer on how it is meant to be used does not determine how it is actually likely to be used, especially if that usage appears to confer obvious advantages.
- HT technology involves the use of a herbicide in far higher amounts than conventional herbicide treatments, high enough to kill all weeds in the field, leaving only the engineered crop to grow. Thereby, it replaces all other weed control measures.
- HT may be effective for a few years. But basic evolutionary considerations, as well as experience in other countries, shows that it imposes strong selective pressure for resistant weeds to emerge. They invariably do so in the course of time and spread rapidly. HT offers short-term benefits at the cost of long-term sustainability. Long term assessment is necessary before clearing its way.