New Delhi: In an effort to create a level playing field among biotech companies developing genetically modified (GM) seeds, the government plans to set up a new research facility which will enable smaller firms to outsource field trials.
Currently, unlike larger and more experienced companies, smaller firms are at a disadvantage while undertaking field trials, because of the high costs of trials, the high probability of failure, as well as the chance of a rejection of field trials due to their inability to comprehend the complex procedures involved.
Accordingly, the department of biotechnology and a Hyderabad-based non-profit, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics (Icrisat), will form an organization that will act as a so-called single-window service provider to undertake trials on a contract basis and walk companies through the process.
“It is tentatively called Platform for Translational and Transgenic Research,” said a senior official in the biotechnology department who did not wish to be identified. “The initial investment is Rs20 crore, but depending on how successful the venture is, we might even upgrade it to a joint venture company.”
Emails and calls to Icrisat chairman William Dar were not immediately returned.
Though more than 80% of crop research is carried out by state-owned research labs, the government expects the private sector to play an increasing role in genetically improving chickpea, pigeon pea and rice grown here.
Field trials are a long drawn-out process in which companies have to prove that their GM seeds are non-toxic, superior to the natural alternative and environmentally safe.
The results have to be approved by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, a body under the ministry of environment and forests.
Agricultural biotechnology companies in the past have often complained that lack of clear guidelines on seed testing resulted in their failing to make the cut.
“Larger international corporations have the financial ability as well as the facilities to go about the testing procedures, but it’s often the smaller companies who are clueless about the regulatory framework, mainly because of a lack of experience,” said Suhartho Banerjee, a biotechnology expert at the University of Delhi.
“It’s a welcome move, though at this stage the biggest beneficiaries would be universities and the government’s own research institutes, simply because they are the ones most into GM crop research,” said Bhagirath Choudhary, national coordinator for the International Service for Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, an international biotech lobby group.
GM brinjal might be the first transgenic crop to be available commercially and field trials are at an advanced stage. However, these trials have been trapped in legal battles. Research is also under way on GM rice, potato and papaya.
Though GM food crops are not commercially available in the country, the government, concerned about low agricultural productivity, sees biotechnology as an important means of increasing farm output.