Agri-biotechnologyAgriculture PolicyBt technology

Why Govt Must Set up Biotechnology Regulator, House it in Department of Biotechnology

C D Mayee (in red shirt) and Bhagiradh Choudhary (with scarf) educating cotton farmers of Vidarbha on how to avoid pink bollworm infestation. Photo supplied by Chaudhary.

In an article in Economic Times Prime, Bhagirath Chaudhary and C D Mayee say the government should consider shifting the business of regulation of genetically-modified organisms (GMO) from the environment ministry to the Department of Biotechnology in the Ministry of Science & Technology. This can be done by setting up a Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI). The enabling legislation —BRAI Bill 2013— has been pending in the Lok Sabha for the past nine years. Such a body would help India to keep pace with rapid advances in genome editing and agri-biotechnology while ensuring  environmental sustainability and biosafety, they argue. Chaudhary is founder-director of Jodhpur-based South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC) and Mayee was director of the Central Institute of Cotton Research, Nagpur. He is President of SABC.

The writers say that the government should reconsider decisions on GM mustard and stacked trait Bt/HT cotton. The GM mustard hybrid, DMH-11, developed by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants of the University of Delhi, South Campus, was recommended for cultivation by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) in May 2017 but the government has not acted on its advice.

As for HTBt cotton, the Haryana government has given its no objections to trials by Mahyco, a Maharashtra-based seed company whose joint venture with Monsanto (now Bayer) was given approval in 2002 for sale of insect-resistant Bt cottonseed. The no objection is for biosafety trials of Bollgard II RRF (Roundup Ready Flex) cotton which is insect-resistant and can tolerate the herbicide Glyphosate.

In the article, the authors have welcomed the government’s genome editing guidelines, which were released in May. They have hailed the government’s decision in March to exempt Site Directed Nuclease (SDN)1 and SDN2 genome-edited plants from the stringent rules that govern transgenic crops. They say the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the Department of Biotechnology have initiated programmes using genome-editing tools for crop improvement. Several crops with enhanced nutrition and tolerance to pests, diseases and weather stresses are in the pipeline.

Chaudhary and Mayee write that the government should reverse the ban on cultivation of Bt Brinjal, which the GEAC had recommended for cultivation in 2020; restore the GEAC’s authority as an approval committee (which it was till 2010) ; and do away with the need for no-objection certificates from states for carrying out field experiments on transgenic crops.

The writers of the article say that global warming, climate stresses, pressure on water supplies and shrinking cultivable land make it necessary to produce more food with less resources. They say India must catch up with the advanced countries in gene technologies. Even countries that were earlier squeamish are now taking a liberal view of these technologies.

The Economist in an article on 24 May says Britain’s departure from the European Union has given it an opportunity to strike out on its own path. It has made it easier for scientists to conduct trials of gene-edited crops. On 25 May it introduced legislation that would allow such crops to be cultivated in England. This will be followed by a review of England’s GM regime, which is strictly regulated now. Its environment secretary has said that gene-edited products could be on shop shelves as soon as next year. One of them could be gene-edited tomatoes developed by John Innes Centre in Norwich, with enhanced Vitamin D. A single upgraded tomato, the magazine says, could provide around 20 percent of the recommended daily intake of the vitamin.

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