Gene-edited crops offer fresh hope for Indian farmers

Gene-edited crops soon
Based on scientific evidence, gene-edited crops can be made available to farmers quicker than GM crops that require more time and regulatory scrutiny.

Gene-edited crops gaining ground: The Indian farmers have contributed significantly to the global agricultural industry with a wide range of crops. Agriculture employs nearly 60% of the Indian population and contributes approximately 18% to the country’s GDP. Despite significant progress in agriculture, Indian farmers continue to face several challenges such as pest infestations, erratic weather, droughts, floods, salinity, and soil degradation. The latest in the list is climate change which is bound to worsen these situations.

Globally, researchers have developed solutions to reduce crop losses due to these challenges. While some of those solutions have been and are being developed using modern breeding methods, biotechnology advances are critical in addressing many of the challenges. This is especially true in the case of the challenges where breeding methodologies are ineffective.

Genetically modified (GM) crops, also known as genetically engineered crops, are grown worldwide for the last 24 years. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), 18 million farmers cultivated GM crops in 29 countries in the year 2019.

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Approximately 45% of the global GM crop area is cultivated in the US and 26% in Brazil. In addition, Argentina, Canada, India, and several other countries grow GM crops. The acreage of GM crops worldwide increased by 5% in 2020, reaching 197 million hectares. Maize and soybean adoption rates reached record highs this year at 60% and 94%, respectively.

There has been an increase in the approval of genetically modified crops for food, feed, and cultivation in recent years. As of March 4, 2023, Brazil has approved the commercial cultivation of wheat event HB4. In 2022, the Philippines approved the cultivation of Bt eggplant event EE-1. The United States has approved the canola event MON94100 and corn event MON87429 for use in food and feed, the wheat event HB4 for use in food and feed, and the soybean event GMB151 for cultivation.

Noticeably, the Nigerian government has approved the wheat event HB4 for food and feed use in Africa. The government of Ghana has approved the cowpea event AAT709A for use in food, feed, and cultivation. The Turkish government has approved the maize event MON87427 for use as animal feed. New Zealand, Australia, and Colombia have approved the wheat event HB4.

As of 2021, the Philippines has approved the following varieties of corn: MON87429, MON87427 x MON89034 x TC1507 x MON87411 x 5912, MON87427; eggplant EE1; cotton MON88701, MON88702; alfalfa KK179 x J101; and rice GR2E (Golden Rice) for commercial propagation.

Turkey approved soybean DAS-44406-6 and maize DAS-40278-9 for feed use. In addition, the United States approved maize event DBN9858, PY203 for food and feed, potato event Gen2-Z6 for food and feed, maize event DP202216 for food and feed, and cotton event MON88702 for cultivation. It is evident from these examples that countries around the world are adopting Biotech crops and helping their farmers to grow more food, export their agri-food products, and contribute to their economies.

Since the commercial approval of Bt cotton for cultivation over two decades ago in 2002, India has experienced a tumultuous journey in field testing and introducing genetically modified crops. In recent months, the Indian government has approved the cultivation of the GM mustard hybrid MDH-11 and field trials of additional cotton and rubber varieties in the country.

With these GM crops, farmers can increase their yields in the field while reducing expenses on inputs such as pesticides. However, although the high demand for GM crops from the farmers, despite the two decades of experience in GM cotton, the process to grant approvals for testing and commercial release in the pipeline is taking too long. It has severely impeded investments in agriculture and biotechnology.

Gene-edited crops

The gene editing technique is a potent tool that scientists use to alter the genetic makeup of crops. With the advancements in biotechnology, crops can be modified to have enhanced stress resistance and field performance, including biomass and yield. Also, the CRISPR-mediated gene editing approach is used to improve several food quality traits, such as longer shelf life and increased nutritious value.

The modified crops are generated without inserting foreign DNA in the host plant, making it a transgene-free approach for crop improvement for sustainable agriculture. Therefore CRISPR-Cas9 technique is a non-GM approach to avoid legal, ethical, and regulatory concerns.

With gene editing technology, crops can be genetically edited with high precision for given target traits. Thus, the crops that are produced are not classified as GM and are, therefore, not subjected to the same level of scrutiny and regulation as GM crops.

Several countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Israel, Paraguay, and the US established their regulatory framework and identified specific genome-edited crops that will not be subject to GMO regulations and have high Gene Editing Index ratings (10/10) as these countries determined to impose ‘No Unique Regulations’ on GE crops.

These countries endorse a more relaxed regulatory approach towards gene-edited crops with consideration given to those that do not contain DNA from another species being treated similarly to conventional plants. In the US, only GE soybean which produces seeds with ~20% less saturated fatty acids has been cultivated on a large scale. However, serval other crops with GE traits are in the development stage.

Conversely, India has a current Gene Editing Index rating of 6/10 as government authorities are still considering proposing ‘No Unique Regulations.’ Interestingly, the EU, Mexico, the UK, and Ukraine impose stringent regulations on GE crops.

Furthermore, gene editing enables scientists to develop crops more quickly and efficiently, complementing traditional breeding methods. Based on scientific evidence, gene-edited crops could be made available to farmers quicker than GM crops which require more time and regulatory scrutiny. This technology holds promise to significantly boost India’s agriculture sector which has suffered from rising costs of cultivation and declining yields.

Globally, the development of gene-edited crops has been a topic of interest among researchers. Various CGIAR centers are currently involved in the development of gene-edited crops such as banana, wheat, rice, cassava, maize, and potato, with a focus on enhancing disease resistance and weed control. In addition to these efforts by research centers, multinational companies are also actively engaged in the production of gene-edited crops.

The most commonly edited crops globally include rice, tomato, maize, soybean, and wheat. Genome editing techniques have been employed to improve not only major crops but also minor and orphan ones, as well as a diverse range of vegetables. Although China and the US have led in developing genome-edited crops so far, research and development using genome-editing techniques continue to expand globally.

These are still early days in the development of gene editing technology in India. As much as Indian researchers are using global gene-editing technologies in the Indian context, they are also developing gene-editing techniques specific to Indian crops. They look to develop crops that are resistant to pests and diseases, but have a higher nutritional value, and can survive harsh climate conditions.

In 2019, researchers from the National Institute for Plant Biotechnology in New Delhi researched on the development of salt-tolerant rice capable of withstanding elevated salt levels in the soil. Similarly, in 2018, scientists at the National Agri-Food Biotechnology Institute used CRISPR technology to fortify bananas with vitamin-A to alleviate vitamin A deficiency in developing countries.

As part of its efforts to promote gene-editing technology in agriculture, the Indian government has recognised the potential of the technology. In 2022, the Department of Biotechnology released guidelines for the development and use of gene-editing technology in agriculture.

In 2017, the Supreme Court directed the Food Safety Standard Authority of India (FSSAI) to create genetically engineered food products regulations. And in 2016, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) adopted new guidelines for assessing the environmental risks of genetically engineered plants, which included public consultation in the approval process for the first time.

Finally, the adoption of gene-edited crops is gaining momentum. Policymakers worldwide are taking significant steps to establish guidelines and policies for developing, testing, and releasing gene-edited crops. As a technological advancement, gene editing holds considerable promise to increase farmers’ income and livelihood and ensure food and nutrition security in low- and medium-income countries.

The smallholder farmers in these countries have already suffered a considerable cost of missed opportunities in access to new technologies, and India is no exception. Thus gene-edited crops must be made available to farmers in India to boost growth in the agriculture sector.

(Sunil Madan is Outreach Specialist at College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Michigan State University. Ajay Panchbhai is Regional Breeding, Seed Systems and Product Management Lead – Africa at International Rice Research Institute, Nairobi. Suhas Shinde is Research Scientist, Molecular Biology, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, St Louis. The views expressed are personal views of the authors.)