GM varieties of rice may soon be widely planted on the Indian subcontinent. Credit: © Monsanto

India's apex body of agricultural scientists has given the go-ahead for the widespread introduction of genetically modified (GM) varieties of rice, lifting the gloom in the biotech industry cast by government indecision over GM mustard (Nat. Biotechnol. 21, 9, 2003).

“With a need for an additional 50% more rice by the year 2030, we need rice varieties with higher yield and greater yield stability. We should use all the tools at our disposal to meet these challenges,” a spokesperson for the New Delhi–based National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) said while releasing the recommendations of a workshop held in Chennai to discuss the biosafety issues of transgenic rice. Although the workshop took place during October 27–30, 2002, the final recommendations were officially released only at the end of December 2002.

The academy, the largest body of professional agricultural researchers in India, has endorsed development of rice varieties tolerant to drought, submergence, and salinity, and rich in micronutrients. Transgenes encoding products such as Bt (already introduced in cotton varieties released in India last year) can also be put in rice for pest resistance. However, the academy has discouraged work on transgenic rice varieties that produce drugs and pharmaceuticals, apparently to avoid unnecessary risks with a crop that is the staple of India's diet.

Swiss-based Syngenta (Basel), which has a major rice program in India, is expected to be pleased with the recommendations. According to Pawan Malik, president of the seeds division of Syngenta India, the company is working in collaboration with as many as 35 institutions in India, including the Pant University of Agriculture and Technology at Pantnagar and the Konkan Agricultural University in Dapoli.

The academy's full support for GM rice came after the workshop dispelled the fears of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that releasing transgenic varieties in a “center of origin of rice” would risk contaminating the land races, as reportedly happened with maize in Mexico. Although the workshop admits that “the potential of gene flow in rice does exist,” Virendra Lal Chopra, president of NAAS says, “it did not identify any scientifically valid environmental or ecological impact” of transgenes on the center of diversity.

Although agreeing with this, Suman Sahai, convener of Gene Campaign, an NGO that opposed the introduction of Bt cotton in India last year, says the question of genetic pollution “must be addressed for transgenic rice through appropriate regulatory oversight, on a case-by-case basis.”

Meanwhile, “The NAAS recommendations are a shot in the arm for biotech research,” says E.A. Siddiq, formerly deputy director general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and a workshop participant. “Researchers who have been unsure if their work would enter field trials would be enthused.”

One researcher is Akilesh Tyagi of Delhi University, whose salt-tolerant rice is ready for trials. At the International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in New Delhi, Madan Mohan and colleagues have developed a variety resistant to attack by “gall midge,” a major pest of rice worldwide. “We will have a gall midge-resistant transgenic plant growing in our lab in three months,” he says, adding that he does not anticipate any NGO opposition because “we have only transferred a gene from one rice to another.”

However, this is not the case with vitamin A–rich golden rice, which contains genes from bacteria. Gurumurthi Natarajan, a biotechnology consultant in Chennai, says that, under the recommendations, application of golden rice “must be reviewed through the regulatory process, keeping in view the social, political, and cultural implications.” Although the Indian government has decided to introduce golden rice, “we have made sure that golden rice will not contain antibiotic markers,” says Siddiq.

According to NAAS, lack of a scientifically sound regulatory review process is one critical factor that might limit the realization of the numerous proven and potential benefits of GM rice. Therefore it has called for “a transparent regulatory process and appropriate regulatory oversight based on sound scientific information.”