In boost for agriculture, India exempts gene-edited crops from biosafety assessment

By Vijay Paranjape

April 4, 2022

In a bold move with far-reaching consequences for the country’s agricultural development, India’s government has issued an order exempting certain gene-edited plants from stringent biosafety regulations.

The move exempts SDN1 and SDN2 plants from the cumbersome and time-consuming regulations currently imposed on the commercialization of genetically modified transgenic crops.  Regulators would instead rely on the Institutional Biosafety Committee to certify that the gene-edited crop is devoid of any foreign DNA.

SDN1 and SDN2 processes do not involve alien genetic material and the result is indistinguishable from conventionally bred crop varieties. By taking this action, India joins a growing list of countries that have already approved progressive regulations for gene-edited crops.

A group of eminent scientists recently wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressing their concern that agricultural progress was being delayed. They categorically stated that the variants developed through SDN1 and SDN2 techniques do not have any alien DNA and can be treated as other conventionally-bred hybrids. Their appeal seems to have worked as the Indian government soon moved to exempt those gene-edited products from its GMO regulatory process.

India’s government has already recognized the power of editing techniques to study and manipulate a plant’s genome. It has been promoting research and innovation in the area of genome engineering technologies and their applications in agriculture, bioenergy, environmental research and human health.

Both public and private sector organizations in India have been engaged in the research and development of gene-edited crops even in the absence of a regulatory policy that would support their release for commercial use.

Indian public sector research laboratories are already using gene editing to develop a number of improved crop varieties, including nutritionally improved oil seeds; rice and maize that can tolerate drought stress; beta carotene-rich banana; high oleic and low linoleic acid ground nuts; blast-resistant rice; high-yielding rice that is nitrogen- and water use-efficient; low-phytate rice; anthracnose-resistant pepper;  and biotic and abiotic stress-tolerant tomato.

Research is also underway in Indian laboratories to improve the precision of gene editing. Now, with the exemption of gene-edited crops from biosafety assessment, more and more gene edited products will likely be made available to farmers.

Indian farmers and seed companies have waiting for a much-needed boost for the country’s agriculture sector since the approval of genetically modified cotton, the country’s first GM crop, 20 years ago. Though millions of Indian cotton farmers have benefitted from that approval, the government has not commercialized any new GM products, including GM mustard and GM eggplant, which were close to de-regulation.

The recent announcement on gene-edited plants is expected to give the country’s seed industry and farmers a tremendous boost as the technology has the potential to develop new varieties more quickly. Genome editing, also known as CRISPR, is anticipated to accelerate the product development pipeline for seed companies and reduce costs, compared to the development of transgenic plants.

With seed companies now poised to leverage gene editing technology to develop new varieties, there is likely to be a spurt of technology licensing activities.