New Delhi: India’s apex biotech regulator, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), has censured a government research lab conducting experiments to develop genetically modified (GM) chicken for violating key environmental laws.
A variety of controversies have dogged experiments involving genetic modification, but it’s for the first time that concerns have been raised on research bodies’ non-compliance with prescribed laws, which scientists say are “among the most serious”.
While an effective ban prevails on the commercial cultivation of GM crops in India, several companies as well as government research bodies have stepped up preliminary research into a variety of organisms, including edible plants as well as higher life, such as fish.
In April, the Project Directorate of Poultry, a Hyderabad-based laboratory and part of the central Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) network, announced a new technique to transfer genes from a jellyfish into chicken eggs, which they claimed has immense potential for the pharmaceutical industry.
On 30 July, in a notification just made public, GEAC ruled that the poultry lab didn’t have a biosafety committee and also hadn’t informed the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM), a gatekeeper body that approves large-scale trials involving GM products, of their experiments.
“The committee (GEAC)...concluded that the institute has violated the provisions of Rules 1989 (Environmental Protection Act) and is therefore liable for prosecution as per the provisions of section 15 of EPA, 1986. The committee also expressed deep concern to the fact that public sector institutions are not abiding by the law,” the notification on the GEAC website reads.
Scientists say that the experiment itself didn’t have any serious fallout as all the chicken produced as a result of the tests were killed, as per GEAC’s instructions.
“This is very serious. The main issue is that permissions weren’t taken,” said Arjula Reddy, a senior geneticist and head of a GEAC sub-committee that probed the matter.
“Forming an institutional bio-safety committee and informing the RCGM is necessary to ensure that all activities involving foreign DNA transfer are kept for the record,” said B. Sesikeran, director of National Institute of Nutrition and a member of RCGM.
He added that tracing the origin of samples was vital to trace the origins of a disease or an outbreak, if it happened.
K.M.L. Pathak, deputy director general at ICAR (animal science), said: “We still don’t know how such a lapse happened. I’ve ordered all related work at the lab to be stopped and I’ll be visiting the lab later this week for a detailed report. Violating such basic laws is unforgivable and we’ll decide on appropriate action soon.”