Even as the Centre investigates allegations that unauthorised genetically modified (GM) rice was exported to Europe , it is yet to decide on a research proposal from its own scientists which would allow plants to be genetically modified without the need for conventional transgenic technology. Unlike the older GM technology which involves the introduction of foreign DNA, the new proposal involves the use of gene editing tools to directly tweak the plant’s own genes instead.
Scientists at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute are in the process of developing resilient and high-yield rice varieties using such gene editing techniques, which have already been approved by many countries, and they hope to have such rice varieties in the hands of the Indian farmers by 2024. However, the proposal for Indian regulators to consider this technique as equivalent to conventional breeding methods, since it does not involve inserting any foreign DNA, has been pending with the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee for almost two years.
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The IARI has previously worked on golden rice, a traditional GM variety which inserted genes from other organisms into the rice plant, but ended trials over five years ago due to agronomic issues, said Director A.K Singh. India has not approved any GM food crop for commercial cultivation.
The Institute has now moved to newer technologies such as Site Directed Nuclease (SDN) 1 and 2. They aim to bring precision and efficiency into the breeding process using gene editing tools such as CRISPR, whose developers won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2020.
“In this case, you are just tweaking a gene that is already there in the plant, without bringing in any gene from outside. When a protein comes from an outside organism, then you need to test for safety. But in this case, this protein is right there in the plant, and is being changed a little bit, just as nature does through mutation,” said Dr. Singh . “But it is much faster and far more precise than natural mutation or conventional breeding methods which involve trial and error and multiple breeding cycles. It is potentially a new Green Revolution.”
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A research coalition under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), which includes the IARI, is using these techniques to develop rice varieties which are drought-tolerant, salinity-tolerant and high-yielding. They could potentially be ready for commercial cultivation within three years, said Dr. Singh.
However, the draft guidelines for such gene-editing techniques have been stuck with GEAC for almost two years. In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year, a group of senior scientists calling themselves the India Agriculture Advancement Group (IAAG) expressed concern over the “inordinate delay”.
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A senior official said the guidelines had been submitted to GEAC in January 2020, after an extended public consultation and expert review process under the aegis of the Department of Biotechnology and approval from its Review Committee on Genetic Manipulations.
No foreign DNA
“The SDN 1 and SDN 2 categories of genome edited plants do not contain any foreign DNA when they are taken to the open field trials,” said the IAAG letter, which argued against further consultation with State Governments. Signatories include the former heads of the ICAR, the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the Indian Institute of Science.
“The U.S., Canada, Australia and Japan are among the countries which have already approved the SDN 1 and 2 technologies as not akin to GM, so such varieties of rice can be exported without any problem,” said Dr. Singh. The European Food Safety Authority has also submitted its opinion that these technologies do not need the same level of safety assessment as conventional GM , though the European Union is yet to accept the recommendation, he said.