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Gene Editing in Agriculture: Science, Policy, Story

Chander Mohan
Chander Mohan

Gene editing is a new, efficient and a promising technology which has unbelievable potential in the fields of medicine and agriculture, but in India it is still in its nascent stage. Indian research community has developed capability to do genome editing with ease owing to the past technical exposure and experience with GM crop research, molecular data generation and safety assessment. This technology can offer enormous benefits to address the problems of local and commercial crops. If appropriate handling of political and democratic issues is not addressed in a timely manner, then the benefits of the technology will be lost. The probability of experiencing the same fate for the release of gene editing crops will be high as experienced with the release of genetically modified (GM) crops. Adopting new technologies like gene editing should not encourage abandonment or undermine the benefits of GM technology.

Gene Editing in Agriculture: Science, Policy, Story” an intensive training for scientists, communicators, and regulators with expertise in the space of biotechnology or interest in increasing access to gene editing technology in order to address issues of food security, agricultural sustainability, and climate change was held at Taj Krishna, Hyderabad from February 25-28, 2019. The Cornell Alliance for Science and Cornell Sathguru Foundation for Development (CSFD) organized the event towards promoting access to scientific innovation as a means of enhancing food security, improving environmental sustainability, and raising the quality of life globally. The interactive training course was focused mainly on providing participants the basic science of gene editing, insights into the conversation around gene editing, current trends and possible approaches for regulating GE techniques, and the frameworks. The workshop also provided the tools and support needed to become a more effective, proactive and reactive communicator on the subject of gene editing. 37 participants from public, private sectors and students involved in Gene Editing research actively participated in the workshop. The course was led and instructed by a team of internationally-renowned experts from Cornell Alliance for Science. Also, experts from regulatory affairs and industry gave insightful sessions highlighting the current status of gene editing in India.  

On the 3rd day of the workshop (February 27, 2019), a special Round table event was organized in the World café format. Eminent stalwarts from the sector including regulators, policy makers, media, public and private seed industry representatives were the key dignitaries for the event. The theme of the round table was “Gene Editing: What is to gain? What is at stake?”. Sarah Evanega, Director, Cornell Alliance for Science hosted and moderated the event. The experts were assigned a table and a topic regarding the current scenario and the future of gene editing in agriculture in India, for facilitating an open discussion with the participants.

The discussion focused on the following topics being delivered by each of the invited dignitaries:

  1. Gene editing oversight: Balancing innovation while insuring safety (Dr. S.R. Rao, Adviser, Department of Biotechnology, Minister of Science & Technology Government of India)

  2. Gene editing regulations in India: What are we loosing with delay? (Dr. Usha BarwaleZehr, Director and Chief Technology Officer, MAHYCO)

  3. Does the public have any role in the acceptance and/or adoption of technology in agriculture? (Prof. C. KameswaraRao, Founder and Executive Secretary, Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education (FBAE))

  4. Will gene editing spur innovation in locally important crops? (Prof. P. Balasubramanium, Scientific Director, South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC))

  5. How can scientists and journalists help each other in gene editing reporting? (Dr. Padmavati Manchikanti, Professor and Dean, Rajiv Gandhi School of Intellectual Property Law, IIT Kharagpur)

  6. How can scientists and journalists help each other in Gene Editing reporting (Mr. SomasekharMulugu, Bureau Chief, Hindu Business Line)

  7. Gene Editing: Should we or should we not? (Mr. Chander Mohan, Sr. V. P. Special Initiatives & Sr. Executive Editor, Krishi Jagran (Agriculture World))

  8. Come hear tips on how to give a better interview (Ms. Mandeep Kaur, Associate Editor, Business of Agriculture)

  9. Role of effective communication in demystifying gene editing (Mr. Rahul Koul, Chief Editor, BioVoice)

Regulatory policies were an important aspect discussed during the session. Predictability regarding the regulatory policies in India would ensure continued investment in gene editing research by both private and public sectors. The government needs to understand the necessity of technological intervention in crop improvement. Without significant government involvement, the benefits associated with the technology will never see the face of light. Due to the delay in the government taking a stand regarding gene editing technology, most of the companies have started mutation breeding to get the desired products. This is a concern, which requires immediate attention as it may lead to concealment of technology used in the products. Hence, responsible regulations will be the key for the future in terms of development. Safety issues, import regulations were also discussed.

IP landscape for GM technology is much clear and very different from gene editing. Context of patent pooling for gene editing is coming up, but licensing mechanism is not clear for gene editing technology as it is for GM technology. Also, patent enforcement of crops using gene editing technology might be challenge in the near future which must be addressed. Another aspect of the discussion focused on communication. It is imperative that the journalists understand the latest technologies and the science behind to interpret and write in an effective way. Public engagement and building awareness for this technology among the stakeholders is essential. The opportunities and the bad effects, if any, of the technology must not be exaggerated. There has to be a balance between regulators, activists and policy makers’ understanding of the technology. Communication is a key to promote the gene editing research and can be effectively achieved by using non-scientific language by researchers to create awareness about the technology. Renaming the terminology of Gene editing was suggested for wider acceptance. The discussion ended with consensus that no science will come up in a large way without the necessary political support and will. 

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