GM crops can help India meet its food security needs

Written by Sandip Das | Updated: Jul 16 2014, 13:48pm hrs
The new environment minister Prakash Javadekar is yet to take a call on allowing further trials of genetically-modified (GM) crops. The seed industry is hoping for better days, like they used to be before 2010 when the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal was put on hold. Ram Kaundinya, Chairman, Association of Biotechnology-Led Enterprises (Agriculture Group), spoke to Sandip Das on the need for using biotechnology for meeting the rising demand for food in the country.

What are your expectations from the government on the use of biotechnology in agriculture

We are focused on R&D of innovative biotechnology products for the benefit of the farmers, the consumers and the nation. Any technology initiative requires policy support from the government for R&D as the gestation period is long and huge amounts have to be invested. The technology and its applications have stagnated since 2010 (with the moratorium on commercial release of Bt brinjal). We believe this inaction should end and a phase of active adoption of agricultural biotechnology be ushered in.

We expect that, under the new regime, the process of research, including open-field trials under the supervision of existing regulatory bodies, is not halted while the requirement of NOC from states for conducting trials is waived off. Coordination among the agriculture, the science & technology, and the environment & forests ministries along with the state agriculture universities and respective state agriculture departments is key to this.

The new agriculture minister, Radha Mohan Singh, has stated that GM technology should be adopted in case of urgent needs. What would be your approach

We have always maintained that this technology is no silver bullet that solves all the problems. The objective of food and nutritional security of the nation will need a basket of solutions of which GM technology is a part. We should deploy the technology where it can deliver the best value to the farmer and the consumer. The government and the industry together should identify high-priority crops and traits for which GM technology would be beneficial for India. This will help the industry to focus its efforts with the government providing the necessary policy support. As India asserts its position globally, it must use the best technologies for the benefit of its farmers and develop technologies for long-term agricultural sustainability.

Ongoing biotech research trials in India, concerning crops like corn, rice, cotton, vegetables, etc, are being pursued under strict regulatory guidelines. The data generated from these field trials is critical to establish the safety and efficacy of products in different agro-climatic zones in the country. We request the new agriculture minister to send out a strong signal on the scientific deployment of this technology under strict supervision. This will make Indian agriculture globally competitive and sustainable.

The Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill and the Seeds Bill are pending with Parliament for years. How can the passing of these two crucial legislations be expedited

The BRAI Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha in the last session with an aim to create a predictable, science-based, efficient and robust regulatory authority that is fully empowered to assess and approve the introduction of biotech applications. This authority was envisaged as per the recommendations of the taskforce led by MS Swaminathan. The Bill has been reviewed by the standing committees on science & technology and environment & forests. An independent regulator, in the form of the BRAI, is a step in the positive direction. But anti-technology activists are strongly opposing the same by spreading myths about technologies adopted in several countries.

Given the role of agricultural biotechnology in productivity increase and food security, we request the new government to ensure the passage of the BRAI Bill in Parliament, with amendments if these are deemed necessary.

The Seeds Bill (to be reintroduced) aims to regulate the quality of seeds and planting material of all agriculture, horticulture and plantation crops to ensure availability of true-to-type seeds. According to the National Seed Association of India (NSAI), the Indian seeds industry, ranked fifth globally, is expected to grow at an annual rate of 11%. The industry is expected to rise, with growing population, food consumption and disposable incomes. As per agriculture ministry estimates, the organised seed sector in India has a low market shareless than 20%even though the quality of seeds is an important contributing factor towards productivity. The rest of the market is held by the unorganised sector that supplies low-quality and cheaper products catering to marginal and small farmers. It is significant that quality seeds are made available to farmers. Nearly 87% of the seeds cater to the production of foodgrains while the rest are accounted for by vegetables.

What should be done to promote GM research in the country

We have only made a modest beginning, with Bt cotton (the only GM crop allowed for commercial cultivation), but much more is possible if this technology finds application in food crops as well. The other traits being developed, such as drought- and salinity-tolerance, improved nitrogen- and water-use efficiency, and enhanced nutritional quality can benefit India. These technologies can help farming in drought-prone areas and on saline soil while paring down the governments subsidy bill.

GM trait development is at various stages for more than nine crops and with over 50 events in India. It is interesting to note that over 50% of these research projects are on at public sector institutions, with huge financial investment. All these developments, at both public and private sectors research facilities, have been put on hold since 2010, causing enormous delays in making these technologies available to the farmers. Agro-biotech could be used as one of the solutions to address the economic and social needs of a growing population.

What can the government do to put the commercial introduction of Bt brinjal back on track

The environment minister must review the Bt brinjal case. When the moratorium was imposed in 2010, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) was asked to define additional tests to be conducted on Bt brinjal. Unfortunately, these tests are yet to be prescribed as the GEAC has been almost non-functional for the last three years. If the minister issues clear guidelines to the GEAC to take up the Bt brinjal case with urgency and bring it to the logical conclusion of approval based on the technologys merits, it would be a right step. Indian farmers need a variety of technologies among which improved seed is the foremost. The benefits of Bt technology for cotton are unparalleled. The rapid adoption of the technology by more than 6 million farmers shows its impact on their lives. Indias cotton yield increased from a mere 190 kg per hectare in FY01 to 362 kg per hectare in FY06 and even touched 510 kg per hectare in FY11, owing to better agricultural practices and the use of Bt cotton. Besides, Indias cotton production increased from 136 lakh bales (170 kg per bale) to 334 lakh bales between 2002 and 2012, a 146% increase.

Which are the GM crops that India can adopt Globally, quite a few are cultivated

As per the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) report, more than 18 million farmers in 27 countries planted biotech-enabled crops in 2013, reflecting a 5 million, or 3%, increase in global biotech crop hectarage. The year 2013 marks the first-ever commercial planting of drought-tolerant maize in the US. In 2013, out of 1.5 billion hectares of agricultural crops planted globally, 12% were biotech. According to the report, over 90%, or 16.5 million, of the farmers planting biotech crops are small and resource-poor. Of the countries planting biotech crops, eight are industrial and 19 are developing. For the second year, developing countries planted more hectares of biotech crops than industrialised countries, representing the confidence and trust of millions of risk-adverse farmers who have experienced the benefits of these crops. Nearly 100% of the farmers who tried biotech crops continue to plant them year after year, the report notes.

Does the virtual ceasing of research in cotton since the introduction of Bt cotton worry you This implies our growing reliance on just one variety

It is not factual to say that research in developing cotton varieties has stopped since the introduction of Bt cotton in the country. The breeding programmes are continuing without any change. Bt is only one additional trait that has been incorporated into the cotton variety of the cotton-seed companies. The investment in cotton variety development is now more rigorous as each company knows that since all the companies have access to the same Bt technology, it is only the superiority of the variety that would augment market share.