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Shaping India’s agricultural future

The Cornell Alliance for Science collaborated with India-based Cornell Sathguru Foundation for Development to tailor a training workshop for Indian farmers, scientists, policymakers, educators and journalists about gene editing, science communications and the regulatory framework that governs the technology in India. Above, training workshop participants. Photo provided.

Since the 1980’s, India has been making important scientific advances in agricultural biotechnology. So when scientists there began asking for tools to help explain their research to the public, the Cornell Alliance for Science collaborated with India-based Cornell Sathguru Foundation for Development to tailor a course specific to their needs.

“We were hearing from scientists and policymakers that they were concerned that India could be left behind as the rest of the world moves ahead with gene editing in agriculture,” explained Sarah Evanega, senior associate director of international programs and director of the Cornell Alliance for Science. “They were quite keen to learn ways to successfully advocate for the technology so that India can remain competitive.”

The course, which ran Feb. 25-28, featured international and Indian experts in gene editing, science communications and the regulatory framework that governs the technology in India. Matthew Willmann, director of Cornell’s Plant Transformation Facility, lectured on the latest advances in plant gene editing, often called CRISPR.

Indian scientists and farmers discuss gene editing at the training course. Photo provided.

“It was very exciting to meet some of the committed scientists who want to use CRISPR to help the farmers and people of India, such as Navneet Kaur, who hopes to use the technology to increase the vitamin content of bananas,” Willmann said. “I was also honored to meet farmers who are champions of modernizing India’s agricultural sector.”

Participant Sneh Lata Singla-Pareek, group leader in plant stress biology at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in New Delhi, shared Willmann’s enthusiasm. "This was one of the most informative and exciting workshops that I have ever attended, where scientists, farmers and policymakers came together as one to shape the future of agriculture in India," she said.

Gregory Jaffe, associate director of legal affairs for the Cornell Alliance for Science and an international expert in the field of agricultural biotechnology and biosafety, and Pablo Orozco, a Guatemalan attorney and recent Cornell Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellow, led sessions to familiarize participants with India’s regulatory process as it pertains to genetic engineering, as well as the global regulatory environment.

Dr. Matthew Willmann, center, with Indian farmers Malvinder Malhi, right, and Pavitarpal Singh Pangli, left, at the Cornell Alliance for Science gene editing workshop in Hyderabad, India. Photo provided.

Evanega, who is a plant biologist and science communicator, led sessions on how to more effectively engage important stakeholders, such as media. “The scientists were very eager to learn how to share their passion for their research, and why it matters to farmers and the ordinary citizens of India,” she said. “They want to effectively express how biotechnology can help India feed a rapidly growing population at a time when climate change is challenging agricultural production around the globe.”

Course facilitators also included Morgan Carter, a Ph.D. student in Cornell’s School of Integrative Plant Science, Jayson Merkley, a 2015 Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellow and advocacy expert, and Polly Endreny Holmberg, Alliance for Science training lead.

The course culminated in a robust panel presentation with Indian scientists, policymakers, educators and journalists discussing a topic titled “Gene editing: What is to gain? What is at stake?”

“It was extremely rewarding to participate in an informed, civil conversation about a controversial topic that has captivated the world,” said Evanega, who moderated the discussion. “India is clearly preparing to take its rightful place on the world stage of agricultural innovation.”

Joan Conrow is the managing editor of the Cornell Alliance for Science.