Trilochan Mohapatra took over as secretary, department of agricultural research and education, and director general, Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) in February. A molecular geneticist, he is known for developing the first high-yielding basmati rice variety resistant to bacterial leaf blight and for genome sequencing of rice and tomato. In an interview with Vivian Fernandes, he adds that we need PPPs in biotech and for seed multiplication. Excerpts:
With weather getting more erratic and population set to increase, how is ICAR preparing for food and nutrition security?
Agriculture contributes to GHG emissions, particularly low-land rice. It emits methane, which is more earth warming than carbon dioxide. Direct-seeded rice (without transplantation) and System of Rice Intensification (SRI) can help reduce these emissions. But these cannot be applied in every situation as rice is cultivated in a variety of ecologies, from upland to deep water. Even with rice-wheat system in the Indo-Gangetic Plain (IGP), where there is no water stagnation, we have to reduce emissions.
Will it happen through conservation agriculture?
With conservation agriculture you retain soil moisture, sequester carbon in the soil instead of releasing it in the atmosphere (as smoke and soot), and reduce the use of chemical fertilisers. We can have C4 crops like maize, sorghum and sugarcane, which are more efficient in photosynthesis than rice and wheat. But there are research efforts to bring C4 photosynthesis to rice as well. It is one of the areas ICAR is focusing on. There are several institutions engaged in changing the anatomy of the rice plant to increase the concentration of CO2 in the tissue so more photosynthesis can occur.
Why can’t we use the tools of (GM)?
Without recombinant DNA technology, it can’t happen. Even the regulatory environment is not favourable…
At this point, we have limitations but we are overcoming them. Science should not stop. When it comes to commercialisation, one can see what best can be done. But this is at the concept validation stage. Experiments should continue.
ICAR was at the forefront of the Green Revolution. Why is it missing in action in the gene revolution?
Not exactly, activities have been going on. There is a need to improve efficiency and speed. There are many laboratories which are involved in validation of gene functions. But the public system cannot match private companies in funding, infrastructure and the critical mass of people focused on a project.
What are ICAR’s focus areas in agri-biotech?
We are testing genes for C4 photosynthesis in rice. We are trying to improve nitrogen use efficiency (a) through nitrogen-fixing bacteria, (b) plant and rhizobia interaction, and (c) by manipulating host genetic mechanisms. With regard to phosphorus use efficiency, the genes and markers are available and we are doing the breeding. We have had very good success.
ICAR has more than 100 institutes. Why can’t it focus on a few critical crops like pulses?
In pulses, the problem of pod borer is serious. We have a focused programme on GM pulses where we can use Bt genes, which has been proven safe in cotton (against bollworm). We are making tur resistant to pod borers.
That is happening at Assam Agricultural University, Jorhat… It is doing work on chickpea (chana). The Indian Institute of Pulses Research, Kanpur, has identified 6-7 events (mutated transgenic cells). Event selection will happen next. In 3-4 years, we should be able to deliver it to the farmers if the regulatory system approves.
Political leaders are wary of GM technology because they see it as the preserve of private companies. If ICAR gets into the field, will there be less resistance?
DU (South Campus) has created transgenic mustard with NDDB funding. It has gone through all the tests. It is a product of the public system. The bio-safety dossier is ready. Once it is placed in the public domain and comments come, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) will, probably, take a final call. That should happen ideally before the mustard sowing season in October.
Is hybrid vigour in it proven?
They have recorded more than 20% heterosis (yield enhancement). But I am not really worried by heterosis in this particular hybrid (Dhara Mustard Hybrid 11) as we can back-cross and generate better ones if this seed is deregulated and allowed for cultivation. This has happened in (Bt) cotton. More than 1,500 hybrids have been released in 10 years. It is a record for India. Public and private can join and create newer combinations.
You told reporters recently there should be PPPs in research. Can you elaborate?
We need PPPs in biotech and for seed multiplication. Gone are the days when the public system could meet all the seed needs of the country. Today, the National Seed Corporation and state seed corporations cannot supply enough because seed replacement rates are increasing. Some farmers want to change them every year.
The second area is having partnerships for GM research … partnering with multinationals, if they can put in money and we can do research together to solve a particular problem.
It happened in Bt brinjal…
There the event was provided (by Mahyco India) and it was back-crossed. It was not at the stage of gene discovery.
Political leaders are reluctant to allow private companies to charge for plant traits. The agriculture ministry virtually issued a compulsory licence on Bt cotton using the Essential Commodities Act. It capped the trait fees. In fact, a former IAS official, Pravesh Sharma, said the government should acquire critical technologies and provide them free to farmers…
That is one way to deal with it. But we can partner from the very beginning and have an understanding on how to share credit, and how to make it (a desirable trait) a thing of public good.
Is there such a mindset in ICAR?
This is what our mindset is. Certainly, there must be partners who are ready for it. We need to develop more transgenic events than the public system is handling at this time. Also, bio-safety study is not easy. The public system can involve the private sector.
Why can’t ICAR do field trials on behalf of private trait developers?
If I have a sponsored project, I will be very happy. For (GM) mustard we did field trials in Punjab, Delhi and Bharatpur. There are a few issues. For event selection and confined field trials, state government NOC is required. What we are planning is to create sites, where selections can happen before it goes to GEAC. When the event is approved, we have to go back to GEAC. We have to see ways and means to rationalise that process.
Have you spoken to the Department of Biotechnology and the ministry of environment?
We are discussing. Two rounds of meetings are over. There is quite a bit of evolution. The agriculture minister says whatever has been approved by the environment ministry for release, we will not have difficulty in promoting that.
Agri-biotech is an important area of science. Because of the uncertainty, are you finding it difficult to attract talent?
This is one point which is being discussed among scientists and also the political leaders. This is a wonderful science, it has tremendous potential.
What about golden rice fortified with beta carotene for vitamin-A?
I don’t know when it will go to consumer. ICAR has it. It is sitting there. The day we get approvals, we will do the needful.
Politicians are wary of agri-biotech. Shouldn’t ICAR educate them?
This country needs an awareness programme for the public, the political system and even educated people like scientists … even they do not understand. We have discussed this with the department of biotechnology and the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences.