Column: From green to gene revolution

Written by Ashok Gulati | Updated: Oct 25 2013, 08:25am hrs
On October 17, in an impressive ceremony at the Iowa State Capitol, Des Moines, in the US, three scientistsMarc Van Montagu from Belgium, and Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert T Fraley from the USwere honoured with the World Food Prize 2013 for their individual breakthrough achievements in founding, developing and applying modern agricultural biotechnology. Their research made it possible for farmers to grow crops with improved yields, resistance to insects and disease, and the ability to tolerate extreme variations in climate such as excessive heat and drought.

The revolutionary biotechnological discoveries of these three individualsworking separately in different facilities across two continentsunlocked the key to plant cell transformation using recombinant DNA, which led to several genetically-enhanced crops, ushering in the gene revolution. In 2012, such crops were being grown on more than 170 million hectares around the globe by 17.3 million farmers, more than 90% of these were resource-poor small holders in developing countries.

The World Food Prize was conceived by Norman E Borlaug in 1985 and founded in 1986 with the support of General Foods Corporation. Since 1990, businessman and philanthropist John Ruan has supported this. Norman Borlaug was the winner of Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, as there was no Nobel Prize for agriculture, for his pioneering work on high yielding varieties, which are said to have saved more than 1 billion lives on this planet. No wonder, Norman is rightly called the father of Green Revolution. But the award to the three scientists in 2013 marks the recognition of a major leap in science taking the Green Revolution to gene revolution.

Des Moines turns Mecca for agri-scientists and those concerned with the feeding of 9 billion population on this planet by 2050, during the three-day celebrations (October 16-18), attracting people from all over the globesuch as Tony Blair (ex-PM, the UK), Olafur Ragnar Grimsson (President of Iceland), Akinwumi A Adesina (minister of agriculture and rural development, Nigeria), and Howard G Buffett of the US. All of them had a common cause to be there: how to ensure sustainable supplies of nutritious food to feed the rising global population in the wake of emerging climate changes and increasing pressures on water, energy and land resources. The answer seems to lie in the biotechnology of tomorrow, a direction given by these three Food Laureates of 2013.

Of course, there were few sceptics too, from the Greens to many other NGOs, who had a mild protest. Dissent is a good sign of any democratic society as it keeps the checks and balances. This was the case with the high-yielding varieties in India, when 18,000 tonnes of seeds were imported in mid-1960s. There was lot of fear and scepticism with heated debates in Parliament. Genetically-modified (GM) crops face a similar situation today. We need these debates to bring greater transparency and education to awaken societies. But we also need leadership to take bold decisions for the good of humanity with in some acceptable time limits. Where is the world headed on that issue

Scientists have led the charge to develop this new science. But science needs conducive policy environment to flourish and serve humanity for larger good. Thats not found everywhere. The US, Brazil, Argentina, etc, are at the forefront while several countries in Europe are hesitant. However, the fact remains that year after year, farmers are adopting these new technologies on ever-growing scale with crops ranging from soya, corn, cotton and canola. There are several research studies in peer reviewed scientific journals estimating the benefit these crops have brought to societies.

In India alone, Bt cottonthough still somewhat controversial with some hardcore groups protesting against ithas spread to almost 90% of cotton-growing area, more than doubling the production from 16 million bales in 2002-03 to almost 35 million bales this year, making India a significant exporter of about 10 million bales now, from a marginal importer/self-sufficient in 2002-03, fetching foreign exchange earnings of more than $3 billion a year. After this success, one expected that India would be at the forefront of this gene revolution and would be a major export hub to other Asian and African countries. But our policy paralysis on Bt brinjal (eggplant) seems to have lost our gene revolution some steam.

While transparency and due caution for food safety is the right of every citizen, when science tinkers with basic necessities like food, there has to be a right call made at the end, not paralysis. That is leadership. If food safety is the concern, I would humbly suggest to the sceptics in policymaking to drive through the mid-west USwhich I did for more than 700 km during this trip to Des Moinesand see the corn fields giving 9 to 11 tonnes per hectare yields, and almost every American family eating corn from the GM crops for years. Time will not wait for us. Agriculture of tomorrow will be more science-based, and the winners then will be those who adopt it and develop it further today.

The Indian Council of Agricultural Researchs (ICAR) budget for biotechnology is not even a fraction of the budget of one major company in the US. Just to give a feel of where we are: Monsanto is spending more than $1 billion each year on research in biotech, while our total ICAR budget (plan and non-plan) for the entire country for conventional, high yielding and biotechnology is less than $1 billionthe biotech part of this is around $100 million. In comparison, China is spending almost $3 billion on developing biotechnology. Can we win the race to feed our people well, in a sustainable manner, with such meagre investments in agri-technology, not to speak of biotechnology, which remains peanuts compared internationally Policymakers need to think deep and take a call.

The author is chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices. Views are personal