India must allow farmers to access new technologies

Written by Sandip Das | Updated: Jun 6 2013, 07:56am hrs
US-based global biotech seed major Monsanto, with an annual turnover of more than $13 billion, has been operating in India for many decades. However, the company came into prominence in the last decade because of its success in boosting the countrys cotton production, through introduction of the first genetically modified (GM) seed variety approved in India. Gyanendra Shukla, Region Lead & CEO, Monsanto India spoke to FEs Sandip Das on the issues impacting Indian agriculture.

How long has Monsanto been in India

This is our 64th year of operation in India. We have been partnering with Indian farmers for over four decades. In the 1970s, Monsanto made agricultural chemical herbicides for weed management. In the late 1990s, we took a strategic decision to focus on improving seeds through breeding and using biotechnology and a transition away from chemicals, with the exception of our Roundup herbicide which complements our seed business. We are constantly innovating to find new ways of improving seeds using several breeding means and plant biotechnology tools. The focus is on improving farmers lives through helping them to grow more efficiently. We believe that India can achieve self-sufficiency in food and be a global contributor in the agriculture sector.

What has been your focus area on research and seed development in the country

We have focused our research on improving seed varieties in corn, cotton, soya, canola and vegetables worldwide, as we have realised that it is not practical to conduct research on every crop. We have also started sugarcane in Brazil, and research and development work in the United States. Globally, Monsanto invests around $1.5 billion annually on research and development about a third of that is in biotechnology. The rest of the fund is invested in research in advanced breeding techniques, whether it is molecular breeding techniques or researching hybrids. Biotechnology is only one of the many methods we use. We believe yield can be enhanced through seed breeding, biotechnology and agronomic practices.

What are your views on the current regulatory regime, particularly for GM crops How do you address the concerns about decline in BT cotton productivity in recent years

The current regulatory setup has worked well, and is benchmarked with the best in the world. Yet, it can evolve to speed up agricultural research. There is a lot of research being done not only by the private sector but also the public sector, and this needs to be encouraged. However, there can be more clarity and better coordination between the Centre and states on agri-technology research. Over 50 applications are pending before the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), and delays are leading to a loss of an entire sowing season. This effectively pushes back research in the country by another year. Similarly, the Seed Bill has been pending for nearly a decade. The public and private entities should have a clear idea of how and when the approvals will be given, and how they can create and share value for the farmers. Bt cotton is a hybrid variety and we need to constantly invest in research in new seed varieties to sustain high productivity levels.

Elaborate on your India operations in areas of seed development.

In India, our business is focused on cotton, corn, vegetables and the herbicide Roundup for weed management. We have a strong presence in maize with our DeKalb seeds, and in vegetable seeds with our Seminis seeds. DeKalb is the top preferred maize seed by farmers, and Seminis is rated as the third-most preferred vegetable seeds. Paras hybrid Bt cotton seeds are among farmers seventh-most preferred in market share; and Roundup is farmers most-preferred glyphosate herbicide for weed management. In addition, the Bollgard II is the seed insect protection technology used in 800-odd cotton hybrids, owned by 40-odd Indian seed companies. Farmers have found value in our seeds and technologies, which has led to nation-wide, year-on-year repeated adoption.

What are the factors you attribute to the success of the first genetically modified crop (BT cotton) being given approval for cultivation in India

At present, BT cotton is planted by farmers on over 80% of Indias cotton acres. Due to huge returns from cotton, farmers lives have improved. Many farmers have built pucca homes, are investing in their childrens education, earning additional income in terms of rural jobs. Cotton seed accounts for only 10% of the cost of cultivation, the BT cotton technology fee is only R163 per packet (or approximately R250 per acre), yet it saves farmers over R2,000-3,000 on insecticide sprays for bollworms, while optimising yield potential, and offering farmers convenience of season-round bollworm protection.