In today's Finshots we discuss India's dependence on imported edible oil and the introduction of genetically modified mustard

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The Story

India has an edible oil problem. We simply don’t produce enough of it. More than 70% of it comes from Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia and Ukraine. And last year we spent a whopping $19 billion importing vegetable oil. A 71% leap!

Unfortunately, these figures are only expected to grow.

Now, the government has been trying to aid self-reliance.

They’ve been offering higher MSPs (Minimum Support Price ― a minimum price guaranteed by the government to insure farmers from lower market prices of crops) for oilseeds of late. And there is the Oil Palm Mission to increase palm oil production and reduce dependency on imports.

But perhaps the most radical solution proposed to combat this issue involves mustard oil. Or more specifically Hybrid DMH-11.

It’s a genetically modified mustard variant developed by a team of researchers at the University of Delhi. They created this hybrid from Indian and East European mustard varieties by inserting very specific genes to improve yields, induce herbicide resistance, and make it safe for human consumption.

And trial reports from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research already indicate that GM-Mustard could deliver better yields when compared to some of the best mustard varieties in India right now — almost 30% higher. Experts also believe that a commercial introduction of Genetically modified (GM) Mustard could double the total acreage under oilseed cultivation. And if all goes according to plan, this could help reduce our dependence on edible oil imports.


India has only approved one genetically modified crop for commercial cultivation so far — BT Cotton. And we don’t eat cotton. In 2010, when the Genetic engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), India’s regulator for GM crops, approved BT Brinjal, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF) did not permit its commercialisation. In 2017, when the GEAC recommended the commercial release of GM mustard, the environment ministry rejected it again. And now almost 5 years on, the GEAC has once again paved the way for the commercial release of DMH-11 and there is strong opposition from multiple groups.

So what’s the issue here you ask?

Well, safety concerns of course. Many people believe that GM foods are inherently unfit for human consumption. But that is not always true. Individual GM crops and their safety is assessed on a case-by-case basis and regulators take a decision based on this data.

And here's where the primary reservations stem from.

Multiple NGOs and academics have contested the data. They also believe that the introduction of GM Mustard could threaten wild pollinators like bees. And remember how we noted that this crop is herbicide resistant. Well, if it’s herbicide-resistant, farmers could use it indiscriminately to clear their fields of weeds. And some herbicides happen to be neurotoxins. So you have those concerns as well. Finally, they believe that this could also pave the way for more BT crops. And if foreign companies own the exclusive rights to develop and market these seeds, India’s food security may ultimately depend on the whims and fancies of these foreign institutions.

But there’s the other side of the argument. The GEAC clearance doesn’t automatically mean we will start seeing GM Mustard everywhere. Instead, over the next two years, the government will initiate the environmental release of GM Mustard for seed production and testing according to Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) guidelines. And if everything checks out, DHM-11 could be commercialized eventually.

Also, note that India isn’t self-sufficient in this department by any stretch of the imagination. We have been importing edible oil from foreign countries, often extracted from genetically modified variants. So the health concerns associated with BT-Mustard isn't going away, whether we adopt them locally or not. Finally, our tryst with BT-crops, especially BT-Cotton, hasn’t been all that terrible. In fact, cotton yields have improved considerably and we are now the world’s second-largest cotton producer, despite some recent concerns (as outlined in this Finshots article).

Nonetheless, despite the apparent benefits, the GEAC clearance will be fiercely contested. The proponents of GM Mustard will advocate for rapid commercialisation, whereas NGOs and farmer groups will likely resist their adoption.

Where does your allegiance lie? Let us know.

Until then...

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