Norms eased for genetically modified crop research

The guidelines sidestep the challenges of using foreign genes to alter crop profile

The guidelines sidestep the challenges of using foreign genes to alter crop profile

The Department of Biotechnology (DBT) has issued guidelines to relax standards for genetically modified (GM) crop research and overcome the challenges of using foreign genes to alter crop profiles.

The ‘Guidelines for Safety Assessment of Genome Edited Plants, 2022’ exempts researchers who use gene editing technology to modify the plant’s genome from approval from the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), an expert body of the Department of Environment. The GEAC evaluates research on genetically modified plants and recommends or disapproves of their introduction into agricultural fields. However, the latest appeal is made by the Minister of the Environment and the states where such plants could be grown. The Ministry of the Environment has also sanctioned this exemption.

The genetically modified plants that usually come for such research are those involving transgenic technology or introducing a gene from another species into a plant, for example, BT cotton, which uses a gene from soil bacteria to make a plant. to protect against pests.

The concern with this method is that these genes can spread to neighboring plants, where such effects are not intended, and so their uses are controversial. Despite the fact that several types of transgenic crops have been researched and approved by scientific committees, none other than BT cotton have made it to the country due to stiff opposition from environmentalists and farmers’ organizations alike.

The DBT, whose mandate is to promote biotechnology, says in the guidelines that the document is a “… roadmap for the development and sustainable use of genome editing technologies in India, addressing concerns about biosecurity and/or environmental security.” specify and describe the regulatory pathways to be followed when performing plant genome editing.”

different approaches

Genome editing involves the use of technologies that allow the addition, removal or modification of genetic material at specific locations in the genome. Several approaches to genome editing have been developed. A well-known one is CRISPR-Cas9, which is short for clustered, regularly spaced short palindromic repeats and CRISPR-associated protein 9.

Just as foreign genes can be used to add traits to plants, gene editing can also be used to express plant traits that are not their own.

The guidelines say that all requirements that researchers must adhere to to develop transgenic seeds apply to gene-edited seeds, except for clauses that require approval from the GEAC.

‘Unintended consequences’

Environmentalists have opposed this exception for genetically modified crops. “Gediting is part of genetic engineering. Therefore, there is no question of granting exemptions to certain types of genome-edited plants from regulatory jurisdiction,” said a letter from the Coalition for a GM-free India to Environment Minister Bhupendra Yadav. Gene editing techniques, the letter states, involve altering the function of genes and can have “major and unintended consequences” that can alter the “toxicity and allergenicity” of plants. “How will regulators and the public know about such changes without the necessary regulatory oversight? Who is responsible for the resulting risk implications?” their letter questions. They have demanded that these exemptions be withdrawn.

N. Raghuram, a biotechnology professor at Guru Gobind Singh University, New Delhi, said there are many similarities in the techniques used in transgenic technology and gene editing technology. “Gene editing is becoming quite popular in biotechnology labs across the country. Gene editing can allay some of the fears surrounding using ‘foreign genes’, but it can only be used to express genes that are already present in a plant’s genome and are not manifest. But more importantly, it is not about technology, but how the plants so developed are sold or made available to farmers.”


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