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Status of Transgenic Crops in India


Three States, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Telangana, have deferred a proposal, approved by the Centre’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), to test a new kind of transgenic cotton seed that contains a gene, Cry2Ai, that purportedly makes cotton resistant to pink bollworm, a major pest.


GS III: Agriculture

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. Status of transgenic crops
  2. What is the process of regulating transgenic crops in India?
  3. Why have Gujarat, Maharashtra and Telangana rebuffed the GEAC?
  4. What are GM Crops?
  5. Regulating Bodies concerned with GM Crops

Status of transgenic crops

In India, transgenic crops are currently limited in their cultivation and approval status. Here is an overview of the status of transgenic crops in the country:

  • Commercially Cultivated Transgenic Crop: Cotton is the only transgenic crop being commercially cultivated in India. It has been widely adopted by farmers and is known as Bt cotton.
  • Transgenic Crops in Trial Stages: Several crops such as brinjal, tomato, maize, and chickpea are undergoing trials using transgenic technology. These crops are at various stages of evaluation and testing for their suitability and safety.
  • Mustard Hybrid DMH-11: The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the apex technical body responsible for evaluating GM seed proposals, approved the environmental release of Mustard hybrid DMH-11 and its parental lines for seed production and testing in October 2022. This is a significant step towards potential commercial cultivation of GM mustard.
  • Litigation and Supreme Court: The approval of transgenic crops in India faces legal challenges. There is ongoing litigation in the Supreme Court regarding the permission to cultivate transgenic food crops based on petitions filed by activist Aruna Rodrigues and the NGO Gene Campaign. The petitioners raised concerns about the potential use of herbicides and their impact on the environment and health.
  • History of GM Crop Approvals: The GEAC had previously granted approval for GM mustard in 2017, but additional tests were imposed later. Similarly, GM brinjal received clearance in 2010, but it was placed under an “indefinite moratorium” by the government at that time.

What is the process of regulating transgenic crops in India?

  • Development and Safety Assessment: The process begins with the development of transgenic crops through the insertion of specific genes into plants to confer desired traits, such as resistance to pests, diseases, or tolerance to environmental conditions. The safety of these transgenic crops is assessed through rigorous scientific evaluations.
  • Evaluation Committees: Multiple committees are involved in the regulatory process. The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) is the apex regulatory body responsible for evaluating and approving proposals for testing genetically modified (GM) seeds. The GEAC comprises scientific experts, representatives from government agencies, and environmentalists.
  • Field Trials: Before a transgenic crop can proceed to commercial cultivation, it undergoes field trials. These trials are conducted in open plots of land, typically located at agricultural universities or ICAR-controlled plots. Field trials assess the performance, environmental impact, and agronomic characteristics of the transgenic crop.
  • Comparative Evaluation: Transgenic crops must demonstrate clear benefits over non-GM varieties in specific traits, such as drought tolerance or insect resistance. The transgenic crop should be superior to existing alternatives without causing ecological harm to other cultivated species in the surrounding areas.
  • Multi-Season Trials: Field trials are conducted over multiple crop seasons and different geographical conditions to evaluate the performance and adaptability of the transgenic crop across various states and regions.
  • Data Submission and Analysis: Detailed data and results from field trials are submitted for analysis, including information on agronomic traits, yield potential, resistance to pests and diseases, and environmental impact. The data is thoroughly reviewed and assessed by regulatory authorities.
  • Regulatory Clearance: Based on the evaluation of safety, efficacy, and environmental impact, regulatory authorities, such as the GEAC, make a decision on whether to grant regulatory clearance for further testing or commercial cultivation of the transgenic crop.

Why have Gujarat, Maharashtra and Telangana rebuffed the GEAC?

The states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Telangana have rebuffed the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) regarding the testing of transgenic cotton seeds. Here are the reasons and events that led to their disapproval:

  • Cry2Ai Cotton Seed: The cotton seed developed by Bioseed Research India in Hyderabad contains the Cry2Ai gene, which imparts resistance against the pink bollworm, a major pest affecting cotton crops. Previous generations of transgenic cotton were developed to combat the American bollworm.
  • State Approval for Testing: Since agriculture is a state subject in India, companies seeking to test their transgenic seeds must obtain approvals from respective states to conduct field trials. The GEAC recommended testing the Cry2Ai seed in farmer’s fields in Telangana, Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Haryana. However, only Haryana granted permission for the trials.
  • Responses from States: Telangana requested a 45-day extension to consider the proposal but ultimately declined to allow trials in the current cropping season. Gujarat responded that the proposal was “unacceptable” without providing specific reasons for their disapproval.
  • GEAC’s Action: In response to the states’ disapproval, the GEAC asked the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) to organize capacity-building activities. These activities aim to educate state governments about the technology involved in genetically modified (GM) crops and the regulatory framework in place for their evaluation.
  • Activist Concerns: Some activist groups, such as the Coalition for a GM-free India, raised objections to the GEAC’s request for states to provide reasons for their disapproval. They perceived this approach as biased lobbying and raised concerns about the promotion of GM crops.

What are GM Crops?

  • Genetically modified crops (GM crops) are plants used in agriculture, the DNA of which has been modified using genetic engineering techniques. More than 10% of the world’s crop lands are planted with GM crops.
  • In most cases, the aim is to introduce a new trait to the plant which does not occur naturally in the species like resistance to certain pests, diseases, environmental conditions, herbicides etc.
  • Genetic Modification is also done to increase nutritional value, bioremediation and for other purposes like production of pharmaceutical agents, biofuels etc.

Regulating Bodies concerned with GM Crops

  • The top biotech regulator in India is Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC).
  • The committee functions as a statutory body under the Environment Protection Act 1986 of the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF).
  • GEAC is responsible for granting permits to conduct experimental and large-scale open field trials and also grant approval for commercial release of biotech crops.
  • The Rules of 1989 also define five competent authorities for handling of various aspects of the rules:
    • The Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBSC),
    • Review Committee of Genetic Manipulation (RCGM),
    • Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC),
    • State Biotechnology Coordination Committee (SBCC) and
    • District Level Committee (DLC)
Cartagena Protocol
  • The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity is an international agreement on biosafety as a supplement to the Convention on Biological Diversity effective since 2003.
  • The Biosafety Protocol seeks to protect biological diversity from the potential risks posed by genetically modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology.

-Source: The Hindu

December 2023