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Saturday / July 20. 2024
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Future of GEd tech in Indian Agriculture

By K C Bansal, Adjunct Professor, The Centre for Crop and Food Innovation, Murdoch University, Western Australia 6190, Australia; Former Director, National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (ICAR), New Delhi; Former Secretary, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, India.

It has been projected that to meet the future food requirements in India, we need to increase our food production from the current level of 330 MT to 520 MT by 2050. Increasing crop yields remains a primary objective and high-yielding varieties of staple crops such as rice, wheat, maize, millets, pulses, and oilseeds are constantly developed to meet the growing demand for food. However, since the 1990s, the average annual increases in yields of major crops have decreased as compared to the 1960s. Also, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) analysis, average crop productivity levels of staple food crops and fruits and vegetables are significantly less in India than in the USA and China. Furthermore, frequent occurrence of extreme weather events like floods, cyclones, droughts, heat waves, etc. is adversely impacting Indian agriculture. The number of such events have increased over the past five decades from 50 in 1971-1980 to more than 100 during 2011-2020. In light of these crucial developments, let’s take a closer look at gene editing (GEd) technology adoption in agriculture in the country.

Plant breeding is absolutely necessary for improving food and nutritional security globally. It has been shown that more than 50 per cent of crop productivity gains so far are attributed to improved crop varieties.  Hence, it is important that efforts are made to significantly improve the genetics of crops to further increase yield and its stability across environments, and to overcome the adverse impact of dwindling natural resources and emerging pests and diseases on crop production.

In this context, it is paramount that we harness the full potential of CRISPR-based genome editing for genetically improving crops for increasing productivity and adaptation to the fast-changing climate. Globally, application of gene editing is all set to play a pivotal role in ushering the next revolution in agriculture. Enabling policy environment and science-driven regulatory framework already in place in several countries worldwide, including India have facilitated addressing global challenges related to food security, nutrition, and sustainable agriculture through the use of CRISPR-based genome editing. On March 30, 2022, the Government of India announced exemption of the genome edited plants falling under the categories of SDN-1 and SDN-2, which are free of exogenous introduced DNA, from the provisions of the Rules, 1989 (Rules 7-11) of  the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.

CRISPR-mediated genome editing is a revolutionary and powerful technology that allows precise modifications in native genes of plants significantly speeding up the process of developing new crop varieties with desirable traits. Thus, genome editing holds tremendous promise and potential to revolutionise crop breeding by accelerating genetic improvement of crops and transforming agriculture to be more productive, sustainable and resilient to the challenges posed by adverse weather events.

While several genome-edited crops with improved traits such as high-oleic soybean in USA, tomato with increased gamma-aminobutyric acid and high-starch maize in Japan, pungency-free mustard green in USA, fungal resistant wheat in China,  and reduced browning banana for the Philippines have already been approved or commercialised, concerted efforts are needed for transforming the Indian agriculture to make it a climate smart and sustainable system as the most viable option for adoption by farmers by 2030 using genome-edited supplemented plant breeding. Importantly, two rice events developed by Indian researchers, one with higher water use efficiency, and the other with higher grain yield are undergoing All India Coordinated Research Projects (AICRP) field trials under Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) with encouraging results. More network projects are in progress with recent funding by the Government of India to the tune of Rs 500 crore to apply genome editing to a range of crops, which includes 24 field crops and 15 horticultural crops, and allied sectors.

Future of Genome Editing

Crop breeding efforts need to be strengthened by deploying genome editing tools for developing climate resilient varieties with inbuilt tolerance to multiple abiotic stresses such as drought, heat, salinity, and flooding to help mitigate yield losses and stabilise agricultural production under adverse environmental conditions. Genome editing has shown promise in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in paddy. Emphasis to be given on developing crop varieties with reduced GHG emissions. Not only methane emission from paddy fields, reducing nitrous oxide emission from the nitrogen-fertilised agricultural soils need to be paid immediate attention. Nitrous oxide is much more potent than methane or CO2 in deriving a rise in temperature. Also, applying genome editing for early maturity traits will enable crops to thrive in variable climatic conditions. Additionally, climate resilience can be achieved by developing CO2-responsive crops to sustain higher productivity under a CO2-rich, warmer climate by multiplex gene editing. Knocking out genes to reduce stomatal density for maintaining photosynthesis and enhancing water conservation in rice has been demonstrated by researchers. Moreover, recent demonstration of achieving a key step in the evolution of C4 photosynthesis in rice by genome editing will boost the confidence of researchers to develop crops for capturing atmospheric CO2 more efficiently.

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