Bangladesh is seen as the most willing nation to adopt a modern agricultural policy network, including the use of biotechnology, while India has yet to make its mind on genetically engineered or modified crops, the Foreign Agriculture Service (FAS) of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has said. 

In Pakistan, a March 2019 moratorium on further approvals for all GM crops except cotton has slowed ongoing research and development activities, while no GM crop is grown in Sri Lanka, the USDA said in its annual report on agricultural biotechnology. 

Permits for imports

“India remains undecided on genetically engineered (GE) crops, despite its regulatory authorities clearing on the environmental release of GE eggplant (brinjal) and mustard events. Bt cotton (Bacillus thuringiensis) remains the sole crop derived from biotechnology approved for commercial cultivation,” the USDA’s FAS said. 

On the other hand, the Indian government has approved for imports soya and canola oils derived from select GE soya and canola events, along with some food ingredients from microbial biotechnology. 

It pointed to the permission given for the import of 1.2 million tonnes of soyabean meal derived from GE soyabean. “However, India continues to drag its feet on the issue of granting market access for similar products such as distillers dried grains with soluble derived from a GE crop and imports of GE alfalfa hay,” it said.

Promoting innovative use

Instead of clearing genetically modified crops, the Indian government has begun to approve the use of innovative biotechnologies, such as genomics and marker-assisted breeding in its biotech projects. 

“Organisations are conducting preliminary research on the application of new biotech techniques such as genome editing in agriculture. To incentivise innovation and promote the development of genome-wide analysis and engineering technologies, India’s Ministry of Science and Technology is supporting programmes and initiatives,” it said. 

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research and affiliated state agricultural universities and other public sector institutions are researching the use of gene editing and other new tools, it said. 

Illegal GM soya, Bt brinjal planting?

India’s policy indecision is despite illegal cultivation of unapproved generically modified crops continuing unabated. Quoting industry sources, the USDA said herbicide-tolerate Bt cotton (HTBt) might account for 15-20 of the total cotton acreage in recent years. 

HTBt cotton is mostly grown in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. “Reports allege that HTBt soyabeans are being cultivated in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Sources indicate that Bt eggplant (brinjal) seeds from Bangladesh have found their way into the fields of West Bengal and Orissa and are slowly spreading to other States,” the FAS report said. 

Though the Indian government has initiated measures to check the sale of seeds of GM crops, it “continues unabated”, it said. 

“The cultivation of the unapproved GE seeds reflects farmers’ frustration with the government’s GE approval process, highlighting a ready demand for the technology,” the USDA said. 

Widening Bangla research

Bangladesh, with support from the world’s scientific community, is seeking to play a role in the advancement of biotechnology research of new GE crop varieties, including rice, potato, eggplant, tomato, wheat, and cotton. 

“GE research on various rice traits is widening with an aim to develop climate-smart varieties, which is essential for the Bangladesh rice sector. However, the regulatory process for gene-edited biotechnology in Bangladesh is at times insufficient and the scientific community is demanding revisions to the existing guidelines and rules for a more efficient approval process for future GE crops,” the report said. 

Stating that Bangladesh is focussed on creating a vibrant and climate-smart agriculture technology, it said the efforts were to reduce poverty levels in the South Asian nation. “Bangladesh’s agricultural biotechnology sector at a nascent stage of development, but the government seeks to move forward in developing and commercialising modern biotechnology products through its draft National Biotechnology Policy (2020) and draft Action Plan of the National Biotechnology Policy (2020),” it said.

Bt brinjal is an example of its success in adopting modern agricultural biotechnology with over 65,000 farmers planting the crop in 2021. Acceptance of the GM crop has steadily increased in the South Asian nation since it was commercially introduced in 2013 “with farmers seeing increased revenues and yields”, it said.

This has encouraged scientists and policymakers to develop more GM crops, including saline-tolerant, stress-tolerant and insect-resistant rice, blast-resistant wheat, late blight-resistant potato, and bollworm-resistant cotton, the USDA said.

However, there is some pause in the political community in accepting modern technology, though government officials are responding to consumer concerns.  

Hindering R&D investments

Like India, cotton remains the only GE crop approved for cultivation in Pakistan. “The underdeveloped and loosely enforced regulatory framework governing advanced agricultural technology continues to hinder life science companies’ investment in GE seed research and development,” the USDA said. 

However, Pakistan imports GE soyabean with US share being 40 per cent. The report said Pakistan’s Ministry of National Food Security and Research, in conjunction with National Biosafety Committee, suspended research and commercialisation of GE hybrid corn in 2019.

This was due to their assessment that local corn production, using non-GE seeds, was sufficient to meet domestic demand. As a result, GE trials on all crops, except for cotton, have been put on hold. 

Since then, NBC has not approved any applications for laboratory, greenhouse or field trials for corn or other food crops.  

In Sri Lanka, despite no GM crop being produced, some research is being carried out at the laboratory level. “The lack of a legal framework and biosafety procedures is a major setback; the country is in the process of finalising regulatory biotechnology policies,” the USDA said.