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Post Bt brinjal,GM crops on trial; scientists say will clear the test

The Indian Express looks at the other GM crops under trial across the country....

Written by The Indian Express |
March 5, 2010 11:48:12 pm

While the moratorium on Bt brinjal has dealt a blow to the scientific community,there are several genetically modifided crops being developed by the Ministry of Agriculture,trials for which are on across the country. Interestingly,as they work on these GM crops,scientists bear it in mind that apart from the taste,the vegetables should also look acceptable. So tomatoes need to be round and red,while Bt brinjals would have borne the look preferred by the region where these were headed. “South Indians largely prefer long,purple brinjals while in the North,round,purple ones are preferred. In some areas brinjals with variegated patterns are preferred. The GM crop has to be created keeping all this in mind,” says P Anand Kumar,Project Director,National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology. Incidentally,India is already consuming GM food in the form of soyabean oil imported from the US,which cultivates GM soyabean. The difference is,oil extraction removes any proteins,and it’s proteins which have been called potentially harmful to human health.

GM TOMATO/ MUSTARD

NATIONAL RESEARCH CENTRE ON PLANT BIOTECHONOLOGY,DELHI

Stage: Greenhouse stage

THE tiniest air-borne particles — winged insects or minute grains of pollen carried by nothing more than an irreverent puff of wind — are barred from entry here. An air curtain,double doors,water doused at just the right time and dry-cleaned aprons are part of the apparatus that serves to protect a clutch of plants. For,these plants — genetically modified tomato that does not spoil as easily as regular ones,and GM mustard that can withstand high salt levels in soil — hold a glimmer of promise for Indian agriculture.

In a “phytotron” — a specially built greenhouse — these varieties created by the National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology (NRCPB) are being tended to. Since foreign genes have been introduced to make the crops resistant to poor soil and watering conditions,specific conditions are maintained to monitor the exact responses: be it water,temperature,biomass (for example,manure) and air quality.

In the case of GM mustard,water is withheld to test the tenacity of the crop.

The objective behind GM tomato is to have a crop that takes longer to ripen,even in the field. The scientists hope this will be a game changer. “The farmer picks the tomato before it is fully ripe. The tomato is a popular food crop but it is also highly perishable. We are trying to reduce the post-crop stress of the farmer. Currently,he is under a deadline to transport the crop because the tomato has a shelf value of five,maybe seven days,” says P Anand Kumar,Project Director,NRCPB. “With this tomato,the aim is to increase the shelf value to 20 days.”

GM mustard is being developed to be resilient to abiotic stress,as in some areas of the Northern Plain,soil salinity levels are going up,say the scientists at NRCPB.

If plants are under highly sanitised conditions in the greenhouse,the next stage would be field trials,followed by toxicology and other safety tests. NEHA SINHA

Bt pigeonpea/Bt chickpea

International Crops Research

Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics,Hyderabad

Status: Greenhouse testing,strip trials

THE International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is engaged in developing insect-resistance in pigeonpea and chickpea using Bt technology. ICRISAT is also working on developing transgenic groundnut,free of diseases. All are in various stages of greenhouse testing and strip trials,in confined nethouse fields.

“Currently,the transgenics of these crops are being developed and evaluated under contained greenhouse conditions and confined strip trials,” says Dr Kiran K Sharma,lead researcher and Principal Scientist (Biotechnology) and Head of Agri-Business Incubator. He adds that Bt groundnut is not being developed since the insect pests of groundnut can be managed to a greater extent through Integrated Pest Management.

“Insect pests like the legume pod borer cause substantial damage to pigeonpea and chickpea,ranging from 30 to 70 per cent damage and yield reduction. In some areas and seasons,this insect can cause 100 per cent crop damage. The available germplasm does not possess adequate levels of resistance to pod borer. Since these crops are mostly grown by subsistence farmers,they cannot afford chemical pesticides. Those who can afford use large amounts of pesticide and end up harming the human and environmental health,while still not controlling the insect pest fully. Hence,transgenic technology holds great promise,” Dr Sharma says.

Currently,these are in developmental stages where scientists are producing a large number of transgenic events and screening them under controlled greenhouse conditions to identify the ones which show good promise for further development.

After this,with necessary approvals,open field trials would be conducted. It may take another two years.

Assisted by at least 20 other researchers,Dr Sharma has been working on the transgenetic technology for over a decade,starting from scratch. Incidentally,while he stresses the potential of genetic engineering,he doesn’t see the decision on Bt brinjal as adverse. “If there are concerns and people need further reassurance on the technology they are going to use,their wishes must also be respected. If by conducting some more tests,public confidence can be strengthened,then by all means we must do it. If Bt brinjal really has merit,it will stand out. However,it is important that the public must respect the decisions of its scientists,” Dr Sharma says.

Sreenivas Janyala

Bt CORN

Monsanto,Mumbai

Status: Field trials

THE experience with Bt brinjal notwithstanding,biotech major Monsanto says it will continue research on Bt corn. Monsanto is conducting research on biotech-enhanced,insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant corn and cotton technologies “which express proteins which enable the plant to protect itself from target insects and at the same time enable better weed management”.

Currently,field trials of its Bt crops are underway at the Tamil Nadu Agriculture University (TNAU). It may also conduct field trials of its cotton variety in the forthcoming kharif season. Dr Gyanendra Shukla,Director,Monsanto (India),says that research on Bt corn would continue,though he is ready for some delays in the new environment. “The delay has significant implications in early availability of technology,” Shukla adds. Monsanto believes that if India has to boost its crop productivity,there is a need for high-yielding technologies. “In 2008,biotech-improved corn was approved as safe,cultivated and imported for food and feed use in 26 countries (16 cultivating and 10 importing countries). Farmers are cultivating biotech-enhanced corn in Argentina,Brazil,Spain,Poland,Portugal,the Philippines,USA,Canada,Romania,Slovakia,Czech Republic,Chile,Egypt,Honduras,South Africa and Uruguay,and it is approved for import by the European Union,Japan,New Zealand,Singapore,Russia,Australia,Korea,Taiwan,the Philippines,China,and Mexico,” Monsanto says,quoting the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) Report 2008. “…for small farmers in Philippines,biotech-enhanced corn provided an overall income advantage up to 48 per cent,” it added. DHAVAL KULKARNI

RICE

M S Swaminathan Research Foundation,Chennai

Status: Waiting for approval for field trials

FOR nearly a decade,Ajay Parida and his team of scientists and

researchers has been working on varieties of rice that can bring about a revolutionary change in paddy farming: there is a genetically-modified variety that can withstand salinity,another that can grow even in drought-like conditions,and yet another that has increased iron content. All that is left is largescale field trials,and toxicity and allergenicity tests. But the nod is yet to come from the authorities.

Amid this uncertainty surrounding enhanced crops triggered by the debate over Bt brinjal,it perhaps takes a scientist’s temperament to only stand and wait. “When we scientists do experiments,we are prone to delay or even failures,” says Dr Parida,the Executive Director of the prestigious M S Swaminathan Research Foundation,Chennai.

While working on transgenic rice that can withstand salinity and drought in the early part of this decade,the research team initially zeroed in on basmati rice as it offered ease of experimentation. “We developed the plants and even conducted two trials. But then there was a big hue and cry. We had to stop all experiments because the government funding agencies,including the Department of Science and Technology,came out with a recommendation that we should not use basmati because it will affect our export market. So the three years of research went useless.”

That is when the researchers started using local rice varieties like Ponni,IR20 and IR64 which do not carry the same commercial burden as basmati.

It is a study keenly observed by experts around the world as a rice variety that can withstand salinity can go in hitherto impossible places not just in India,but across the world. It was a gene in the mangrove tree that allows it to resist salt that was infused in paddy.

“We are now waiting for the approval from the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) before going to the field,” says Dr Parida.

The scientists don’t see the moratorium on Bt brinjal as a blanket ban on similar experiments with regard to other crops. Also,unlike in the case of brinjal,there is no bacteria gene in these rice varieties that changes the quality of the produce,and thus does not require trials.

“But we want to do the tests to shore up the confidence of the public,especially the farming community,” Dr Parida says. Incidentally,he also believes that the “the direction to conduct further tests (on Bt brinjal) is not necessarily a setback”. “I would even term it as a positive measure,because this gives the scientists a chance to prove that it is safe to consume such farm produces. It will be the certificate of acceptability which will automatically silence critics.” GOPU MOHAN

GM potato

Central Potato Research Institute,Shimla

Status: Confined field trials

AT Modipuram in Meerut district of Uttar Pradesh,trials are on to find a strain of potato that can fight the Late Blight,the notorious fungal disease that brought on the Irish Potato Famine of 1845 and at home caused much damage in the Nilgiri hills in 1871 and in Himachal Pradesh hills in 1875.

“This is a disease which survives in all conditions and reappears even in most disease-resistant varieties,causing havoc to the crop within days of its detection. So,how do scientists find a resolution to overcome the problem and save our farmers or our country losing millions every year?” asks Dr S K Pandey,a leading scientist at the Central Potato Research Institute (CRPI) in Shimla. The institute is looking for a solution.

For the past four years,a team of scientists led by Dr Swarup Chakrabarti,head of the Department of Plant Protection,has been conducting confined field trials to produce a disease-resistant strain of potato. Apart from Modipuram,trials have also been conducted on CPRI’s campus in Shimla.

“This is going to be the biggest breakthrough in potato to fight the Late Blight disease. After conducting initially in the labs and later confined trials,we will be going for large-scale trials,to be conducted by farmers in a year and a half,” says Chakrabarti.

What scientists have done is insert a gene from Solanum Bulbocastanum,a wild potato species native to Mexico and South America,in the cultivable varieties to produce GM potato.

The project is being carried out as part of the USAID programme under the Agriculture Biotechnology Support Project -II in colloboration with Cornell University.

Kufri Jyoti — the most popular potato variety here,grown both in the plains and hills — has been taken up for the GM trials.

The CPRI is also working on a GM potato that doesn’t become sweet when kept in cold stores because of ‘Invertase Enzyme’. The third effort is to tackle bacterial wilt in the potato crop by inserting genes from other resources. This project is at an initial stage and will take some time as the earlier tried methods had not found much acceptance within the scientific community.

The CPRI Director is not unduly perturbed by the Bt brinjal row. “We are going ahead with our work,which we feel is highly valuable for the nation,” he says.

Ashwani Sharma

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