GM mustard in India: Thousands of years of cultural heritage under threat

by GRAIN | 31 Jan 2023
Protest against GM mustard outside the Ministry of Environment and Forest in New Delhi (May 2017). Photo: Sarson Satyagraha

On 18 October 2022, India’s government approved the country’s first ever environmental release of a genetically modified (GM) food crop, DMH11 mustard. The approval was issued for a limited period of four years, but the environmental release is considered to be a crucial step on the way to commercial release.

To date, in India, only GM Bt cotton has been approved for commercialisation. Over the past two decades of Bt cotton farming, several reports have emerged highlighting its distressing impact in India, ranging from increased use of pesticides and insecticides to control “superpests”, to increased indebtedness and farmers suicides.[1] [2] Hundreds of local and indigenous cotton varieties in India have been lost to Bt cotton. These have been replaced by Bt monocultures or have become extinct due to genetic contamination. Civil society groups, including Sarson Satyagraha ,and political parties have opposed the environmental release of GM mustard, warning of the risk of contaminating local mustard germplasm and affecting the genetic diversity of India, where mustards have been cultivated for nearly 6000 years.[3]

On 3 November 2022, the Supreme Court of India ordered a suspension of GM mustard’s environmental release. It also ordered the Indian government to ensure that "no hasty action is taken" pending the hearing of the application. However, newspapers report that some Indian Council of Agricultural Research locations in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan have planted GM mustard.

What is DMH-11 mustard?

DMH-11 was developed by Dr Deepak Pental and his team at the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants under the University of Delhi. It is a cross between the popular Indian mustard variety “Varuna” with an East European variety “Early Heera-2”. Since mustard is a self-pollinating crop, crossing was made possible by sterilising one of the parental lines.[4] In the DMH-11 “Varuna variety” parental line, a barnase gene was introduced to induce male sterility and prevent the plant from self-pollinating naturally. Whereas in ‘Early Heera-2’, a barstar gene was introduced which blocks the effect of barnase, thus allowing seeds to be produced when farmers grow DMH-11. A third gene adds to the controversy: the herbicide tolerant bar gene. It was introduced in both parental lines for herbicide resistance, to confer tolerance in the plant to the use of Glufosinate Ammonium. Glufosinate is a broad-spectrum herbicide, similar to Monsanto’s “Round-up” (glyphosate). Non-GM plants die when sprayed with glufosinate. The DMH-11 is therefore not only a transgenic crop because it uses three foreign genes from a different specie but it is essentially a herbicide-tolerant crop.

DMH-11 is a herbicide-tolerant crop

The main controversy surrounding GM mustard is undoubtedly its hidden herbicide tolerance (HT) trait described above. Its developers claim that DMH-11 was not developed to be HT. However, the letter authorising its release issued by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) last October clearly indicates that the genetic make-up of DMH-11 and both the parental lines carry the bar gene and hence prove the presence of herbicide tolerance. The approval letter also included a condition that no herbicide of any kind would be allowed to be used in the field to grow the GM mustard under any circumstances, and that such use of herbicide without proper approval would result in appropriate legal action. This condition itself is evidence that the GM appraisal committee is well aware that this GM mustard is herbicide resistant and that there is a high probability of herbicide use in the farmers' fields.

In a country as large and populous as India, it is difficult for government authorities to prevent farmers from using herbicides when they are readily available on the market. In recent years, India has witnessed illegal planting of herbicide tolerant crops, such as maize, soyabean and cotton.[5] [6] Farmers’ unions and civil society groups have alerted the GM appraisal committee and its ministry, demanding serious action to curb the illegal spread of unapproved herbicide-tolerant GM crops but no strict action has been taken.

The government’s Task Force on Agri-Biotechnology, headed by Dr M.S. Swaminathan, two parliamentary committees and the Supreme Court’s Technical Expert Committee have all opposed the cultivation of HT crops in India. The Supreme Court Technical Expert Committee has called it "unsustainable" and "unsuitable" for India. It noted that the herbicide sprayed on HT crops causes cancer and therefore recommended a "total ban" on all HT crops on a "precautionary principle" since no long-term safety studies have been done on the impact of edible GM crops on human and animal health and biodiversity.

Not really “Made in India”

To sell GM mustard to the government and the public, the developers have labelled it “Swadeshi” or “Made in India”. Unlike Bt cotton which was developed by Monsanto, DMH-11 is developed by a team of Indian scientists at a public research lab under the University of Delhi. The research was funded by the National Dairy Development Board and the Department of Biotechnology. In reality, though, the three external genes used in the GM mustard are patented technology from Bayer CropScience.

In 2002, a similar GM mustard variety was rejected by Indian regulators when Bayer’s subsidiary, ProAgro Seed Company, sought commercial cultivation approval. Bayer’s application was rejected because the Indian Council of Agricultural Research said its field trials did not show an increase in yield.

Questionable economic benefits

Since 2002, the claim of a 'higher' yield from GM mustard has been challenged not only by civil society groups but also by agricultural scientists. The developers of DMH-11 claim that this GM mustard would yield more.

However, GM Free India says that this GMO has never been tested according to the protocols of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, and that the reported yield increase is over DMH-11’s parent variety Varuna, and not over currently available high-yielding varieties and hybrids. The current head of the Directorate of Rapeseed-Mustard Research (DRMR), Dr P.K. Rai, echoes the same sentiments: “DMH-11 has never been tested for yield performance in India. Without completing the field trials, it is difficult to say whether this GM hybrid variety is better than the existing ones”. For higher yields, there are simple traditional techniques such as the System of Mustard Intensification (SMI) practiced by farmers, which increase yields significantly, between 4 and 6 tonnes per hectare. With DMH-11, what is more, there is a strong possibility that productivity could be reduced if the male sterility trait is spread to other mustard varieties, leading to losses for farmers.[7]

Given the government’s intention to build self-reliance in oilseed production to save the huge foreign exchange outflow of about USD 15-20 billion annually on edible oil imports, the move to commercialise GM mustard could defeat India on two fronts. First, the use of herbicide-tolerant mustard would lead to increased imports of herbicides in India. At the same time, India could lose its capacity as an exporter of non-GM and organic foods. Countries that import food grains from India because India doesn’t grow GM food would probably look for an alternate market as the chances of contamination from GM mustard would be much higher after commercialisation.

It could affect bees and other pollinators

Assessing the impact of GM mustard on bees and other pollinators should have been a primary concern of biosafety regulators. However, the recommendation of the GM appraisal committee is evidence that no scientific studies have been conducted to assess this impact.

On 25 August 2022, the appraisal committee established an expert committee to examine the impact of transgenic mustard on honey bees and other pollinators, and to assess the need for the conduct of field demonstration studies.[8] The expert committee produced its report within an express period of 45 days, stating that “based on the review of scientific evidence available worldwide, it appears unlikely that the bar, barnase, and barstar system will have an adverse effect on honey bees and other pollinators”. It also suggested that the field demonstration studies could be conducted after the environmental release”. Groups like the Confederation of Apiculture Industry have called out the committee’s approach as callous and unscientific.

The biggest loss will be in honey exports. India is the world’s fifth largest exporter of honey. Exporters fear that the herbicide-tolerant GM mustard will dramatically impact honey production and exports.

Immediately after the government approval, the beekeepers and honey exporters of the Confederation of Apiculture Industry staged a protest at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research-Mustard Research Institute in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, demanding that the approval be withdrawn. They submitted a memorandum to the Prime Minister of India pointing out that Indian honey is exported with a non-GMO certificate, which will no longer be possible after the commercial release of GM mustard, putting their business and livelihoods at risk.

India will continue to fight and reject GM mustard

India has a long history of fighting against GMOs. During the fight against GM brinjal (eggplant), the government acknowledged that the regulatory system was flawed, that the risk assessment system was not robust and that the testing systems were grossly inadequate.[9] Yet, the Coalition for GM Free India has shown that India’s regulatory system is riddled with conflicts of interest and lacks the specific scientific protocols that are required for testing HT crops. In its fight against the release of GM mustard into the environment, the Coalition exposed 15 lapses by the regulatory authority in the processes and procedures used to evaluate and approve GM mustard.

For Indians, mustard is not just an oilseed but its leaves are eaten directly as part of Indian cuisine (sarson da saag). It is also part of Indian traditional medicine, particularly Ayurveda, where mustard seeds and oil are used. In the case of Bt brinjal, this -direct consumption of the GMO as a food product- was one of the main considerations for the indefinite moratorium.

The commercial release of DMH-11 doesn’t just threaten India’s mustard genetic diversity, it would also open the door to several other GM plants and crops currently under development by the public and private sectors, including banana, eggplant, rice, corn, sorghum and other fruits and vegetables.
Indian farmers have witnessed the disaster caused by Bt cotton. Their protests along consumers and scientists against the environmental release of GM mustard will hopefully be a wake-up call for the government to impose a moratorium on the release of this and all other GMOs. And make it clear that the solution to India’s challenges doesn’t lie in GM products but in supporting farmers and local seed diversity.

[1] KR Kranthi and Glenn Dais Stone, “Long-term impacts of Bt cotton in India”, Nature Plants, Volume 6, 2020,
[2] Coalition for a GM-Free India, “15 YEARS OF BT COTTON IN INDIA: Admission of Failure Official Now”, June 2017,
[3] Sarson (mustard/ rapeseed) Satyagraha was launched in Delhi on 15 July 2015 with a prayer meeting and pledge-taking at the Mahatama Gandhi Memorial at Rajghat, joined by many organisations and individuals to restrict the entry of GM mustard in India.
[4] Mustard is a self-pollinating plant, which means each mustard flower is a ‘perfect flower’ that contains both male stamen and female pistils and therefore does not require another flower/plant to pollinate. Therefore, if a hybrid mustard crop has to be developed, it would need to be genetically engineered to enable hybridisation, as happened in the case of DMH-11.
[5] “Ban on GM Crops”, Press Information Bureau, Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare, Government of India, 2 July 2019,
[6] Jitendra, “Illegal GM Soybean: Farmers’ body demands CBI probe into GEAC inaction”, Down to Earth, 9 March 2018,
[7] Press Trust of India, “GM mustard sown in 6 field trial plots days before SC heard plea against it”, Bharatpur (Rajasthan), 14 November 2022,
[8] Minutes of the 147th Meeting of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, held on 18 October 2022,
[9] Manoj Mitta, “Bt Brinjal exposes serious regulatory lapses”, The Economic Times, 6 February 2010,
Author: GRAIN
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