Secret of Indias rising farm output: It's all in the genes

Written by Sandip Das | New Delhi | Updated: Jan 14 2014, 07:17am hrs
Farm outputAt present, the bank has the capacity to preserve around 7.5 lakh accessions.
Indias grain output has risen substantially in recent years, taking the country to the league of the worlds largest producers of rice, wheat and horticultural crops thanks to the use of diverse seed varieties, among other things. And productivity at Indian farms could increase further in coming years thanks to a centrally managed gene bank that would help multiply seed variants. For a country that faced persistently high food inflation for over three years in a row, the enhanced supply of key grains and crops by the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) could be a game-changer.

Located in the heart of Delhi, the national gene bank has meticulously conserved more than 4 lakh accessions (a unique identifier given to a protein sequence) of various food and horticultural crops, which are continuously being used by the state-owned breeder for developing new seed varieties that deal with changes in weather patterns. At present, the bank has the capacity to preserve around 7.5 lakh accessions.

The gene bank managed by NBPGR, which operates under ministry of agriculture, is considered the worlds third-largest in terms of genetic wealth, after China and the US. Germplasms or genetic resources of an organism include those of endangered species, traditional seed varieties and parents of hybrids.

KC Bansal, director, NBPGR, told FE that out of total collection of germplasms, about 35% belong to only paddy (close to 1 lakh accessions) and wheat (more than 40,000 accessions) varieties. The balance genes include those of vegetables (24,000), oilseeds (55,000) and pulses (50,000).

We have collected genes of around 1,500 crop species, including ornamental, oilseed and medicinal plants. But those which are critical to food and nutritional security will be around 15-20 only. Our mandate is not only to conserve genes but also to utilise them for maintaining food security or nutritional security, Bansal said.

Indias grain production rose from 218 million tonnes in 2009-10 to 255 million tonnes in 2012-13.

For long-term conservation, the germplasm or sample seeds are kept at a temperature of -18 to -20 degrees Celsius. For medium-term storage, the underground gene bank keeps a temperature of -8 to -10 degrees. For conservation of horticultural crops, the gene is saved in the form of tissue culture.

We monitor the viability of genes after 10 years in the long term and five years in the medium term, Bansal said.

The bureau has prioritised 15 categories, including rice, wheat, maize, pearl millet, finger millet, chickpea, mustard, okra, brinjal and mango, for gene preservation initiatives.

At present, as per regulations, the germplasms held with the gene bank is only shared with state-owned research institutes.

Our vast germplasm resources help us in developing new varieties of seeds which have helped millions of farmers in increasing their income, said KV Prabhu, deputy director, Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), a premier institute under the ministry of agriculture.

NBPGR had started the exercise of collecting germplasms since 1976-77 from all over the country. However, in 1996-97, the institute collected the highest number of germplasms (close to 1 lakh) under a mission-mode programme.

Meanwhile, the gene bank has identified core genes out of its stocks of germplasms which would help in development of new varieties of wheat, rice and vegetables which would withstand climatic variations.

Sources said the new wheat varieties developed through identifying around 2,000 core genes from 40,000 accessions are currently being field tested in hotspots such as Gurdaspur (Punjab), Cooch Behar (West Bengal) and Issapur farm (Delhi) prior to transferring them to the state-owned breeder.

India is a signatory to the the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, a global agreement in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity that aims at guaranteeing food security through the conservation, exchange and sustainable use of the worlds plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.