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Freeing the shackled GM technology

Six year old ‘genome editing’ technology, with exceptional applications in agriculture and medicine, is sweeping the world of biotechnology.

Although modern biotechnology began in India on a big note with the establishment of the Department of Biotechnology in the mid-1980s, the progress of commercialising products through Genetically Modified crops and animals is stuck in a regulatory groove from where the needle refuses to budge.
Even the one President who swore by modern technology, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, refused to take a public stand on behalf of GM crops when he had endorsed its deployment during his speeches early on. Prime Minister Modi is a supporter after having witnessed the benefits of Bt cotton in Gujarat but has hamstrung his ministers from approving commercialisation of Bt brinjal and GM mustard. The anti-GM lobby has so successfully tarred GM crops that no one in authority is willing to touch these.
For the opponents of the technology, no amount of regulation is adequate to declare the crop safe whether for commercial deployment or for field-testing. This notwithstanding the fact that almost regulators in several leading economies have approved GM crops as safe.

Green revolution fatigued

Already Indian agriculture is fatigued over its green revolution. If it does not take up modern technologies to improve its productivity, it will be left far behind. On the one hand, both the department of biotechnology and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research have been investing crores of rupees in developing modern biotechnology in India, but in the same government, the ministry of environment doesn’t clear commercialisation of genetically engineered products much against scientific evidence!
In this dark and hopeless scenario of regulatory imbroglio of GM crops, the Indian Council of Medical Research has made bold to field-test genetically engineered male sterile mosquitoes to control dengue and malaria-causing mosquitoes. This technology has done wonders in the Caribbean islands and there is no reason why it will not do so in India. Hundreds of people are dying due to dengue in India and there seems to be no other environmentally sustainable alternative to control the murderous mosquitoes. It is this kind of bold leadership that is needed in ICAR and the DBT to pull the GM crops technology out of its regulatory stupor.
Is there any hope for GM crops in India? The straight answer is: No. Not unless we use the prevailing international scientific consensus to assure the public on its environmental safety. The environment ministry must petition the Supreme Court to get the pending case against it on Bt brinjal dismissed. It must launch an all-out campaign to explain to the public, media, and politicians about the scientific facts on the safety of GM crops. The government should rope in leading scientists to bolster their case and leave the rest to the growers to accept or not.

Genome editing – non GMO…

The GM technology of which we are now discussing is more than forty years old. In fact, it is getting outdated, and a brand-new technology called genome editing is sweeping the world of biotechnology. Already, genome editing has delivered crops like potatoes, mushrooms, apples and other fruits and vegetables that are on the cusp of commercialisation in the USA and Europe. This new technology is just six years old but has found exceptional applications in medicine and agriculture. Interestingly, the technology products have been declared to be non-GMO in all regulatory jurisdictions that have reviewed these products. With the result, most biotech companies have started adopting this genome editing technology to develop future genetically engineered products.

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