New Delhi: At a time when the centre is mulling whether to allow transgenic technology to improve yields of mustard, an oilseed widely used in Indian kitchens, farmers from several states have claimed superior yields by growing traditional mustard varieties using a new method of cultivation.
Known as system of mustard intensification (SMI), the technology which essentially advocates a radically different package of practices, has earlier been successfully tried in crops like rice and wheat.
The technology, which is also known as system of root intensification (SRI), involves planting saplings at a wide distance from each other, using less water and seeds and creating soil conditions which are aerated and microbe-friendly.
In Umariya district of Madhya Pradesh, the SMI process has yielded between 4 to 5.7 tonnes per hectare of mustard and nearly 10,000 farmers in the district have shifted to this new method of cultivation, said Rajesh Tripathi, an agriculture officer employed with the state government.
The higher yields in Umariya compare with an average yield of 2.6 tonnes per hectare for the genetically modified (GM) DMH-11 mustard variety developed by Delhi University’s Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants. Current non-GM average yield of mustard in India is a mere 1.7 tonnes per hectare.
Although Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the nodal regulator for GM crops in India, recommended commercial cultivation of DMH-11 in May this year, the environment ministry is yet to take a final call. If approved, GM mustard will be India’s first transgenic food crop.
The success of using SMI in mustard is not limited to Madhya Pradesh. Farmers in Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal too have tried the technology and reported higher yields.
Data collated by non-profit Preservation and Proliferation of Rural Resources and Nature (PRAN) in Gaya district of Bihar showed that mustard yields crossed 4 tonnes per hectare in fields using RP-09 seed variety. These numbers were verified by the government’s agricultural technology management agency (ATMA).
Apart from farmers using SMI, a Rajasthan farmer and breeder has developed a variety known as Sitara Sringar which yields between 3-3.5 tonnes per hectare with a 42% oil content. “My variety is registered with the centre’s Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Authority and farmers in several districts in Rajasthan are using it now," said Hukum Singh Lodha from Bharatpur in Rajasthan.
The National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources has listed 664 varieties of mustard in its collection and India needs to promote research and explore the use of SMI on these varieties, said Soumik Banerjee, a biotechnologist from Jharkhand who is also a member of the Association for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), a non-profit which campaigns for promotion of agro-ecological farm practices and is opposed to the introduction of transgenic technology.
“SMI allows resource-poor farmers to use less water and seeds and yet achieve significantly higher yields... so the government needs to promote it instead of allowing commercial cultivation of GM mustard," he added.