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Disease-resistant potatoes, fortified bananas — 2 more GM crops get govt nod, trials this year

Over past couple of months, govt panel has given go-ahead to field trials for several GM crops. There's still apprehension that anti-GM activism could derail trials.

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New Delhi: After mustard, India is set to begin trials of two more genetically modified (GM) food crops — bananas and potatoes — possibly ushering in a new era of biotech-enhanced farming. 

Over the past couple of months, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) — the central government panel that monitors and permits GM activity — has given the go-ahead for field trials of several GM crops, also including rubber and newer varieties of cotton. This comes after almost two decades of slow progress in the area since GM cotton was approved in 2002.

While the trials have been approved on paper, there is still an apprehension of anti-GM activism derailing them.  

“It is natural to have concerns about the safety of the crop. We have freedom of speech, so activists have the right to raise their issues. But it is a scientist’s job to provide evidence and data to show that the crop is safe to consume,” said Sanjeev Sharma of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR)-Central Potato Research Institute (CPRI) in Shimla, who is working on GM potatoes. 

Also read: Equitable climate action needed to secure future, says IPCC in latest report

Potatoes to withstand late blight

Since 2005, Sharma has been working on developing a potato variety that can withstand a fungal disease known as late blight.   

Late blight is caused by the pathogen Phytophthora infestans. It can also affect tomatoes and other plants in the Solanaceae family, which also includes peppers and brinjals. The disease spreads rapidly in cool, wet weather conditions and can cause significant damage to potato crops.

In India, the potato is one of the most important crops, and late blight is a major concern for potato growers. According to a report by ICAR, late blight can cause losses of up to 50 per cent in potato yield. 

The disease can also render potatoes unfit for human consumption or processing, which can result in further economic losses.

In India, the average annual losses due to late blight have been estimated to be 15 per cent of total production, according to ICAR data. The disease is prevalent throughout the country, but losses are greater in hilly regions — where the crop is grown under rainfed conditions — than in the plains.

“Potatoes are the third most important food crop in the world after wheat and rice. In India, the crop is grown over an area of 2.2 million hectares — with an annual production of around 53 million metric tonnes. The productivity is around 23 to 24 tonnes per hectare,” Sharma said. 

He added that 90 per cent of the crop is grown in the sub-tropical Indo-Gangetic region, where late blight occurs after every third or fourth crop cycle in epidemic form.

When late blight strikes, it can lead to a cost to the tune of Rs 70,000 crore annually for farmers, said Sharma. Traditionally, to manage the disease, insecticides and fungicides are required — adding to the cost of cultivation. 

Moreover, when the pathogen is exposed to fungicides over time, it develops resistance to it. “Over a span of eight to 10 years, pathogens become resistant even to new varieties of blight-resistant crops that are developed through inbreeding,” Sharma said.

To work around this, the team has developed a new variety of potato that expresses a gene known as the RB gene. Taken from the wild potato species Solanum bulbocastanum, this gene makes the plant resistant to late blight. 

The team began by importing GM potatoes under a material transfer agreement with scientists in the US. “That variety was cross-bred with the most popular Indian variety called Kukri Jyoti which occupies more than 21 per cent of the acreage in India,” Sharma said. 

The new GM variety, known as KJ66, will now undergo Biosafety Research Level (BRL)-1 and BRL-2 trials. The BRL-1 trials are confined experiments where sowing is limited to one acre of land for each trial location. Researchers cannot sow the seeds in more than a cumulative 20 acres at a time at this stage. In BRL-2 trials, up to a hectare (2.47 acres) of land can be used at each location.

“We are planning to conduct the trial in six different agri-ecological zones — three in the hills and three in the sub-tropical plains. We have received no-objection certificates from from the Meghalaya and Himachal governments for the trials. We have approached other states as well,” Sharma said. 

The scientists are planning to sow the first seeds for the trial in the Kharif season this year in Shimla and Shillong. 

As trials in different ecological zones will help the scientists better assess if the variety is suited to the entire country or if it must be limited to specific locations, the CPRI has also approached Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab for permissions. 

Making bananas more nutritious

Siddharth Tiwari, a researcher at the National Agri-Food Biotechnology Institute (NABI)- Mohali, has been working on improving the nutritional profile of bananas. 

Commercially cultivated bananas are a seedless crop — which makes cross-breeding a tedious task. The process can take up to two decades to develop a consumer acceptable hybrid.

“GM technology is the best way to enhance the properties of bananas. We can only rely on biotechnological advances to improve the traits of bananas,” Tiwari told ThePrint. 

For Tiwari’s team, the fight is not against any disease in the crop. Rather, they want to tackle anaemia and Vitamin A deficiency through a ubiquitous and affordable food source. 

Tiwari said that Vitamin A and iron supplements in the form of tablets are not always viable, and fortifying existing foods with these nutrients can be a better approach. 

NABI Mohali started working on the project in 2012. To introduce pro-Vitamin A, the team borrowed the NEN-DXS2 gene from a common banana variety in Kerala known as Nendran.  

For OsNAS1 or OsNAS2 genes, which express iron, the research team turned to rice. “Now that we have all the permissions, we are expecting to start our trials within the next couple of months,” Tiwari said. 

The trials — known as event selection trials — are planned in Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Assam, and Punjab this year. All the trials will be conducted within institutional premises.  

“It will take two years for the plants to bear fruit, after which the scientists will analyse which lines are most promising, and those will be considered for further BRL trials,” he said. 

Since the banana crop takes two years to bear fruit, it will take at least three years for the NABI Mohali team to be able to select the crop lines that show promise for further trials. Right now, the team has some 20 varieties of GM banana that they want to try out. 

Also read: Is bajra the new wheat? How ICAR’s turning humble millet into versatile, ‘luxury’ ingredient

Hurdles & court cases

Since 2002, when GM cotton was approved in India, progress in the field of GM crops has been staggered due to controversies and activism against such crops.

The central government approved the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal in 2009 after several years of field trials and consultations with various stakeholders. Following concerns about the safety and environmental impact of the crop, the government placed a moratorium on the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal in 2010.

Despite the success of Bt brinjal in Bangladesh, the moratorium remains in place to this day. In 2020, the central government approved trials of Bt brinjal but dropped the idea when states did not issue no-objection certificates. 

Even after the GEAC gave its approval for field trials of GM mustard, the crop has been embroiled in controversies. Activist Aruna Rodrigues filed a PIL in the Supreme Court, seeking a ban on GM mustard.

According to her application, more than 25 countries have banned GMOs, including France, Germany, Switzerland and Russia, while substantial restrictions on GMOs exist in more than 60 countries. The application demanded an inquiry into the approval process for GMOs. The case is still in court.  

This has made scientists like Tiwari and Sharma wary of attracting too much attention to their field trials, although they hope that they will be able to prove the science behind them. 

“We have seen so many recent advancements in technology. Bt brinjal is already growing in Bangladesh since 2015. Farmers of Bangladesh are getting so much benefit from the crop. The Philippines has also released its golden rice, which is under cultivation,” Tiwari said.  

He went on to add that other developed countries such as the US and Canada are already growing GM crops such as soybean, maize and cotton. Canola oil which India imports from Canada is produced from GM seeds. 

“We don’t see any complications or negative impacts of these products. Farmers and consumers have changed their perceptions about these crops,” Tiwari said.  

He added that in light of the climate crisis, providing nutritious food for the world’s largest population is a big challenge. 

“If the government supports us, GM banana could become part of the mid-day meals in schools and Poshan Abhiyaan so that a single banana can provide sufficient nutrition to most of the vulnerable population,” he said. 

Change in government stance

The spurt of new approvals for GM crops, including new varieties of cotton and rubber, clearly indicates that the central government is taking a pro-GM stance.  

“I think the government is very positive about these technologies, which is why they are supporting it,” Tiwari said. 

“I understand that the perception for GM seeds has changed now, with the government giving so many approvals for BRL-1 trials,” Sharma added. 

“We are scientists — we can only give ideas. Ultimately, the approval comes from policymakers,” he said. 

(Edited by Smriti Sinha)

Also read: How ICAR’s new wheat variety can beat India’s brutal heatwaves in face of climate crisis


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