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Column: From green to gene revolution

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SummaryIndia needs to improve its record when it comes to investing in biotechnology for agriculture

On October 17, in an impressive ceremony at the Iowa State Capitol, Des Moines, in the US, three scientists—Marc Van Montagu from Belgium, and Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert T Fraley from the US—were 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 individuals—working separately in different facilities across two continents—unlocked 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 globe—such 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

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