The Rubber Board clarifies that it has sent a request to the GEAC for clearance for holding limited-scale field trials.

The Rubber Board, in a clarification issued here on the question of the proposed move to take up field trials on Genetically Modified Rubber (GM rubber) as reported in the columns of The Hindu, has said that while it has no proposal before it to cultivate GM rubber plants on a commercial basis “anywhere in Kerala or any other State,” it had sent a request to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) for clearance for holding limited-scale field trials (in 0.4 ha each) of GM rubber in Kerala and Maharashtra.

According to a press note issued by the Board for “clearing any apprehensions the public may have about the matter,” the request for field trials was sent on the basis of the successful effort in developing GM rubber at the Rubber Research Institute of India (RRII), Puthuppally. These plants have over-expressed an enzyme called MnSOD, which is expected to give rubber plants the capacity to overcome adverse effects of global warming and climate change, especially prolonged drought and tapping panel dryness (TPD).

“The laboratory studies conducted so far are encouraging; however, filed trials should be conducted to validate the laboratory findings,” the press note said.

The formal communication of approval for the field trials from the GEAC is yet to be received. Once the Board receives the formal communication, the governments of Kerala and Maharashtra would be approached for their consent for conducting the trials. “If there is any objection from the States, the Board has no intention of proceeding with the filed trials,” said James Jacob, Director, RRII.

“There is no question of the Board proceeding with any field trials within Kerala without getting clearance from Kerala government,” he said. According to him, every mandatory safety precaution will be followed in any field trial with GM rubber plants.

“The Board has always stood with the rubber growers of the country or the general public. If there is any objection from any corner, the Board is duty bound to consider them seriously,” Dr. Jacob said.

Over-expressed gene

According to the press note, the gene that is over-expressed in the GM rubber plants is MnSOD and it is sourced from rubber itself and not from any other species as usually done in the case of GM plants.

“Since the product of these genes imparts agronomically useful traits to rubber plants, we have successfully put additional copies of this gene into our GM rubber plants. MnSOD gene construct that has gone into our GM plants has CaMV 35S promoter (from virus) and npt II Kanamycin resistance and GUS reporter genes from bacteria (E. coli).”

Both CaMV 35S and npt II genes are extensively used in numerous GM plants, including edible crops that are commercially cultivated in many countries and no adverse effects have been reported so far. These genes are also present in the Bt cotton that is widely cultivated in the country.

Exploiting S&T

Rubber growing countries such as China, Indonesia and Malaysia have made considerable progress in their research programmes on genetic transformation of rubber plants, the press note said. Natural rubber (NR) is a vital and strategic industrial raw material like iron and coal and studies show that domestic requirement for natural rubber will increase as our GDP increases and indications are that there will not be enough NR to meet the rising domestic demand. The alternative would be to import NR from abroad or depend more on synthetic rubbers which are produced from petroleum stocks. Both these options are expensive as well as detrimental to the interests of rubber growers in India.

To increase productivity and supply of NR to meet its growing demand in the country, judicious exploitation of modern science and technology is required. TPD and climatic extremes reduce productivity of existing rubber plantations in the traditional regions. Extension of NR cultivation to non-traditional areas like the North Konkan or North East India is hampered by adverse agro-climatic conditions. GM approach, along with conventional breeding and selection is essential to tackle these challenges, the press note said.

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