Genetically engineered crops: India's path ahead

[Nature India Special Volume: Biotechnology — An agent for sustainable socio-economic transformation]

Jitender Giri* & Akhilesh Kumar Tyagi*

doi:10.1038/nindia.2016.30 Published online 4 March 2016

Akhilesh Kumar Tyagi (left) & Jitender Giri
In 2013, the World Food Prize Foundation recognised pioneering work in the area of plant biotechnology by Robert Fraley, Mary-Dell Chilton and Marc Van Montagu done in early 1980s. They established the technology for stable transfer of genes into plants, which led to genetically engineered crops. This allowed precision, speed and breaking of boundaries of sexual incompatibility in genetic modification. It may be noted that plant genomes have undergone numerous changes over the years leading to progenitors of crops, further selection and domestication of a few crop plants and their subsequent breeding. These include duplication of whole genomes, translocations, fusions and mutations leading to assembly of the present day trait associated genes and their alleles. Existing superior alleles can be combined by breeding, thus leading to improved varieties of a particular crop; however such genes cannot be moved from one species to another sexually incompatible crop. Gene engineering technology offers such a possibility.

To feed the ever increasing world population, there is greater stress on food production and protection than ever. In spite of the use of superior farm practices, yield is showing signs of stagnation in most soils across the world. Changing climate and diminishing natural resources along with competition for land use are continually firing up this trend. Already 870 million people globally do not have sufficient food to eat and another 2 billion are malnourished. These statistics are particularly worrisome. Clearly, current farm practices cannot increase yield to match the requirements. Use of genetically modified (GM) and genetically engineered (GE) crops offers a pragmatic solution to these challenges. Norman Borlaug — father of green revolution — was also of the view that GM and GE plants hold great potential to increase production under different environmental pressures1.  

Challenges, action and expectation

The global population is estimated to reach 9.6 billion by 2050 — a more than five-fold rise since 1900. We need to increase our crop production by at least 60% to feed all the extra mouths. GE plants could hold the key to sustained productivity under testing conditions. Since 1996, when GE crops were first grown commercially, their global cultivation had seen an approximately 100-fold jump — making GE crops the most accepted crop technology of today2. In the last two decades, almost 28 countries have adopted GE crops. Across the globe, these crops are now cultivated on an area of 181.5 million hectares (mha), which is more than the total arable land area of India. Presently, USA is the largest producer of GE crops in the world with about 73.1 mha of land under cultivation. USA has already deregulated 96 petitions of various crops like corn, cotton, tomato, soybean, canola, potato and sugar beet. Among other North American countries, Canada is the fifth largest (11.6 mha) adopter of GE crops, viz. canola, maize, soybean and sugar beet. Brazil (42.2 mha) and Argentina (24.3 mha) in South America are the second and third largest GE crop growing countries in the world, respectively.  Africa’s share is less than 1.6% of the world's total area under GE crops. However, field trials of several GE crops are under way. Maize is the only GE crop grown in five European countries (around 0.15 mha). Approvals for release of many GE crops are under way in many European nations.  

Bt cotton, the only GE crop under cultivation in India, covers around 95% of the total cotton growing area. In a short period of 12 years, around 7.7 million farmers have adopted Bt cotton in India. As a further advancement, a total of 1128 varieties of Bt cotton hybrids have been allowed to be commercially released by GEAC from 2002-2012 for various zones of India ( Bt cotton shows resistance to Lepidopteran insect pests, which cause massive losses, as high as 80% of the crop to sometimes a total crop failure3. Remarkably, cultivation of Bt cotton has reduced 95% of the total insecticide used against these pests. Further, India’s total cotton contribution has risen from 14% (2002-2003) to 25% (2014) in the world cotton market. Similar to Bt cotton, release of Bt brinjal was proposed by GEAC. However, the release was blocked in 2010 due to opposition. Bt brinjal was later adopted in Bangladesh in 2013 and it is currently grown in an area about 50,000 ha. China grows GE crops, including cotton, papaya, poplar, tomato and sweet pepper, on over 4 mha, making China the sixth largest adopter of GE crops worldwide after US, Brazil, Argentina, India and Canada2. Among other Asian countries, Philippines grows GE maize covering 62% of the total maize area2.  

At present, approximately 18 prime crops are at various stages of development and/or field trials in India. These include brinjal, cabbage, castor, cauliflower, chickpea, corn, cotton, groundnut, mustard, okra, papaya, potato, rice, rubber, sorghum, sugarcane, tomato and watermelon ( These crops have been targeted for improvement in different traits, which preferentially include resistance to insect pests, viral and fungal diseases, tolerance to pesticides, nutritional enhancement, male sterility and tolerance to drought/soil salinity. As many as twelve public sectors institutes and universities and sixteen different private sector organisations are contributing to this research in India. 

Regulation of GE crops

Biosafety concerns about GE crops are addressed by stringent national and international policies and dedicated regulatory bodies for research, evaluation and safe use across the world. In India, multiple agencies regulate GE crops. The first set of regulations related to agri-biotech products was enacted under the Environment Protection Act (EPA), 1986 by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and referred to as Rules 1989 which provided “rules for manufacture, use, import, export and storage of Genetically Engineered Organisms or Cells.” Later in 1990, the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) developed the rDNA Guidelines (amended in 1994) introducing measures for research and development of GE crops, their large-scale production, release as well as testing in soil for field scale evaluation.  In 1998, DBT introduced guidelines for biotech plant research which involve regulations for import and shipment of GE plants for research purpose. The up-dated guidelines are available on

EPA rules in India are enforced by both MoEF and DBT through various authorised bodies. IBSC (Institutional Bio-safety Committee) is the first body to review agri-biotech applications for approval. Approved GE product applications are then considered by a Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation  (RCGM) for monitoring field trials and recommendations to the statutory body Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) for approval. In addition, the State Biotechnology Coordination Committees (SBCC) have an important role at state levels.

Concerns and the way forward

Despite demonstrating potential, GE crops have faced opposition in many countries across the globe. They have been perceived by a section of society to be detrimental to environment, human health and socioeconomic parity. However, scientific data to support these perceived fears need to be generated. On the other hand, successful cultivation of large number of GE crops across the world indicates the farmer’s acceptance. While earlier GE crops heavily relied on genes of bacterial origin, such genes for improving agronomic traits are now rapidly being identified from plants. With improvement in technology, GE crops are now becoming more precise and free from the baggage of any irrelevant DNA insertions in the genome. In the last two decades, GE crops have been largely targeted for resistance against herbicides/pesticides or insects. Now, the time is ripe to shift the focus towards engineering plants for drought tolerance, efficient nutrient use and increased crop yield. An appropriately streamlined regulation of GE crop cultivation and educating the public on GE technology should pave the way for acceptance of GE crops. However, the cost of regulatory release should be within the limits of public sector institutions so as to have a larger impact. As per one estimate, product development, biosafety assessment, commercialisation and public acceptance (after discovery research/proof-of-concept) may require an investment of 80 million rupees over seven years. Internationally, the cost is estimated to be about USD 75 million over a period of 10 years4. This demands more financial assistance from government or public-private partnership.

India cultivated GM Bt cotton in 2002. In 2009, Bt brinjal was found safe for environmental release by GEAC. However, its release did not materialise due to a moratorium in 2010. A report by six top science academies in December 2010 provided a scientific analysis in view of the national debate on GM crops including Bt brinjal. The report includes information on world food requirement, regulatory system, concerns and status of GM crops and makes recommendations on the issue. One of the recommendations states: “After taking into consideration all available evidences and opinions, the overwhelming view is that transgenic crops, along with traditional breeding, molecular breeding and other innovative alternatives, should be used for sustainable agriculture to meet the increasing food, feed and fibre demand of the growing population of India.”5 In another policy paper on “Biosafety Assurance for GM Food Crops in India”, the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS), New Delhi addresses biosafety issues, makes recommendations and suggests action plan for the development and utilization of GM food crops6

The Committee on Agriculture presented its report to Indian Parliament on “Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops — Prospects and Effects” in 2012 and unanimously recommended “that till all the concerns voiced in this Report are fully addressed and decisive action is taken by the Government with utmost promptitude, to put in place all regulatory, monitoring, oversight, surveillance and other structures, further research and development on transgenics in agricultural crops should only be done in strict containment and field trials under any garb should be discontinued forthwith.” More recently in 2014, NAAS organised a Roundtable Meeting on “GM Crops for Nutritional Security” under the Chairmanship of Dr. M.S. Swaminathan and one of its resolutions, states: “The present de facto moratorium on field trials of GM crops should be lifted at the earliest. It is putting the clock back in relation to progress in harnessing the benefits of GMO technology in agriculture.”  Considering all such views and debates, at present, there seems to be a rethink in India in relation to use of GM crop technology. The action and effect of the same, however, remains to be seen in the larger context.

Internationally also, efforts are being made by policy makers to address the issue of GM crops. A detailed report, regarding the advanced genetic techniques for crop improvement, its regulation, risk and precaution, was provided by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee in its Fifth Report of session 2014–15. In general, the report highlighted a framework for transgenic research and their release based on ‘product-based’ rather than ‘process-based’ assessment with due consideration to risks as well as benefits7. It says “there is a need to reframe and widen what has been a debate about ‘GM’, in order to initiate a new, more constructive conversation about what we want from food and agriculture. Only from that can we establish what role we would like advanced crop breeding approaches to play. We recommend a large scale public dialogue on the future of food and farming and a shift in the Government’s own frames of reference regarding these technologies. We also recommend that the Government clarify its own thinking about the precautionary principle, so that it can act as a better guide to policy making.”

Thus, there is a clear need to communicate the potential benefits, risks and practices of genetically engineered crops to all stakeholders of society. Additionally, efforts need to be made to provide a framework to arrive at appropriate science based conclusions regarding safety of such products. Establishment of Biosafety Support Unit (BSU) project by the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, is a step in the right direction. Taking the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill further will help adequately address many issues concerned with GE crops. It also remains to be seen if products generated by gene-editing tools are exempted from regulatory processes applicable to genetically engineered crops8.

 *National Institute of Plant Genome Research, Aruna Asaf Ali Road, New Delhi-110067, India.


1. Borlaug, N. E. Ending world hunger. The promise of biotechnology and the threat of antiscience zealotry. Plant Physiol. 124, 487–290 (2000)

2. James, C. Global status of commercialized biotech/GM crops: 2014. ISAAA Brief No. 49. ISAAA: Ithaca, NY (2014)

3.Qaim, M. The economics of genetically modified crops. Ann. Rev. Resour. Econ. 1, 665–93 (2009)

4. Prado, J. R. et al. Genetically engineered crops: from idea to product. Ann. Rev. Plant Biol. 65,769–790 (2014)

5. Inter-Academy Report on GM Crops (Updated), December 2010.

6. Biosafety Assurance for GM Food Crops in India, Policy Paper 52, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, New Delhi (2011)

7. Advanced Genetic Techniques for Crop Improvement: Regulation, Risk and Precaution (2015) House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, London.

8. Editorial: Crop conundrum. Nature. 528, 307–308 (2015)