Punjab fails to monitor GM trial

Departments express ignorance about field trials for potato

By Jyotika Sood
Published: Friday 15 April 2011

punjabTHE Central Potato Research Institute conducted field trial for genetically modified potato at its Jalandhar research station between October 2010 and February 2011. But the Punjab government failed to monitor it.

As per the Environment Protection Act (EPA) of 1986, it is the responsibility of the State Biotechnology Coordination Committees (SBCCs) to supervise GM trials.

S C Aggarwal, chief secretary of the state, says he knows nothing about the field trial. According to the Act, the chief secretary of a state is also the chairperson of SBCC.

The potato research institute (CPRI) experiment aimed to solve a problem associated with storing problems. When stored at 4°C, the tuber produces an enzyme which converts starch into sugar. As a result, the potatoes turn sweet, explains a scientist at CPRI, Jalandhar, who did not want to be named. When fried in hot oil, sugar reacts with amino acid in the oil and turns the potato dark in colour. Such potatoes are rejected by companies involved in making chips and french fries. In India, most cold storages maintain temperature of 4° C. Storage is, therefore, a problem.

Scientists at the institute silenced a gene in potato that produces the enzyme responsible for sweetening. The institute is experimenting on the Kufri Chipsona-1 variety of potato. CPRI director B P Singh, however, claims the potato developed is not genetically modified.

The institue had asked the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), which works under the Union environment ministry, for approval to conduct the trial. The committee gave its approval at a meeting held on November 15, 2010. It also asked CPRI to manually remove the potatoes in case they started flowering, as their pollens could spread to other fields. The Punjab government did not monitor this.

  Scientists at the potato research institute silenced a gene in the tuber that sweetens it  
“We usually ask the university in the region to monitor field trials,” says Jatinder Kaur Arora, member of SBCC, who is also additional director, department of biotechnology, Punjab State Council for Science and Technology. “For the GM potato trial, we approached the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) in Ludhiana. The Punjab SBCC merely acts as an umbrella panel,” she says. But PAU too expressed ignorance. “We have no direction either from the government or SBCC to monitor any field trial at the CPRI research station in Jalandhar,” says G S Ghosal, director research at PAU.

The EPA mandates setting up of a district-level committee by the state government to monitor safety regulations, investigate and report compliance or non-compliance to SBCC and GEAC. But the Punjab government has not finalised the panels yet. According to Arora, the government has not even created a mechanism to form the panels. The GM potato crop was harvested in February and is now kept in cold storage for 45 days for observation, sources said.

The research, funded by the department of biotechnology and CPRI, aims to silence invertase gene, which is responsible for converting starch into sugar. “During the whole process we have not used any transgenes,” says Singh. The research, he says, aims to help the industry and the farmer.

Also, the CPRI started the field trial in October, a month before it was granted permission. “There is a specific time for sowing and harvesting potato. So we sowed the crop in October and multiplied it at our research station in Jalandhar so that we could conduct field trial this year,” says Singh. The Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation, which monitors safety related aspects, “failed to communicate GEAC’s permission to CPRI due to reasons best known to them”, he adds.

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