Biosafety Capacity Building Workshop

Assam Agricultural University (AAU), Jorhat, in collaboration with Biotech Consortium India Limited (BCIL), organized a State Level Biosafety Capacity Building Workshop at the AAU campus on February 10, 2018, with help from the United Nations Environment Program Global Environment Facility (UNEP-GEF) Phase II Capacity Building Project on Biosafety, which is being implemented by the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEFCC), Government of India.

Approximately 125 participants attended the one-day workshop, including university faculty and students, officials from the State of Assam Department of Agriculture, the Directorate of Extension Education, and Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs), as well as tea growers and farmers. Technical Session 1 focused on topics related to introducing genetically engineered (GE) plants, biosafety regulations, safety aspects, and detection of living modified organisms (LMOs), whereas Technical Session 2 covered key research initiatives underway in Assam related to agricultural biotechnology.

During the opening ceremony, Dr. Bidyut K. Sarmah, ICAR National Professor and Director of the DBT-AAU Center, gave the welcome address, during which he thanked MoEFCC for supporting the workshop. He emphasized the necessity of extensive biosafety awareness programs for key stakeholders, as several genetically modified (GM) crops under development at universities and research institutions in India are at various stages of the research and commercialization pipeline. He asserted that agricultural biotechnology has the potential to help reduce the importation of pulses and oil seeds, among others, and would contribute toward food security in the country. He advised participants to address their doubts related to the use of GM crops during the event, as they would later share their findings to others and help contribute to the awareness about GM crops.

Dr. Vibha Ahuja, Chief General Manager of BCIL, stated that the workshop is aimed at disseminating project outcomes developed under the Phase II Capacity Building Project on Biosafety. Several resources and outreach materials have been developed under the project, some of which have also been translated into local languages. All participants were provided with copies of the Biosafety Resource Kit, and other resources were displayed at the event.

Dr. D.K. Borah, Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture at AAU, complimented the efforts made by MoEFCC in organizing this state level capacity building workshop to generate awareness about biosafety issues related to GM crops. He stated that there are several concerns among the public regarding the acceptance of GM crops for human consumption, and initiatives such as this workshop help provide information to clarify these concerns.

In his keynote address, Dr. B. Sesikeran, Chairman of the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) and Former Director of the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), emphasized the need for scientists to communicate their research, thus creating awareness and facilitating acceptance of GM crops in the country. He observed that the safety of all genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is ensured through vigorous testing and safety assessment processes prior to their approval, and India has a robust regulatory framework for doing so. Products derived from GE crops have been widely consumed all over the world for more than 20 years, without any reported adverse effects.

The workshop was inaugurated by Dr. K.M. Bujarbaruah, Vice Chancellor of AAU. He observed that modern biotechnology has immense importance not just in the agricultural sector, but also in various other fields. Research and development initiatives in agricultural biotechnology need to be continued, with safety ensured at every stage in accordance to regulatory requirements for societal acceptance.
He emphasized the need for continuous capacity building initiatives aimed at scientists to help them adhere to the regulatory framework for commercialization of biotech products. He also briefly spoke about initiatives to harmonize regulations under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OCED) guidelines, as well as the agricultural biotechnology research underway at AAU.

Speakers for Technical Session 1 included Dr. B. Sesikeran, Dr. Vibha Ahuja, Dr. Celia Chalam, Principal Scientist at the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR), and Ms. Sonia Kaushik, Assistant Manager at BCIL. Speakers for Technical Session 2 included Dr. Bidyut K. Sarmah, Dr. Sampa Das, INSA Senior Scientist at Bose Institute, Dr. Salvinder Singh and Dr. Sumita Acharjee, Professor and Assistant Professor from the Department of Agricultural Biotechnology at AAU, and Mr. Prabin Kumar Sharma from the Department of Biosciences and Bioengineering, India Institute of Technology (IIT), Guwahati. During these sessions, interaction between the participants and faculty helped clarify several issues with respect to the regulatory framework, biosafety concerns, and regulation of upcoming technologies, such as genome editing.

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