Agri Business

Mahyco pins hopes on new Government to speed up regulatory approvals

Nalinakanthi V BL Research Bureau | Updated on November 25, 2017 Published on August 15, 2014

Usha Zehr, Chief Technology Officer, Mahyco.

From a humble beginning in 1964 as a seed production company, Mahyco has come a long way to become the country’s leading agri-biotech company today.

It was the first Indian company to commercialise transgenic bollgard cotton hybrids (Bt technology) in India, under a license from its innovator Monsanto. Mahyco’s hybrid portfolio today covers a wide range of food and vegetable crops.

“We realised how important it is to offer products that farmers and consumers really want,” says Usha Zehr, Chief Technology Officer, Mahyco. The consumers’ apathy to red seed sorghum triggered Mahyco’s investment in creating a white coloured sorghum.

“When you make roti with the red seed sorghum, it will seem as if there is some dirt on the roti. Hence, this product found little favour among consumers. This prompted Mahyco’s move to create a cream coloured sorghum grain which will be high yielding yet without the red colour,” explains Zehr.

Apart from sorghum, the company’s hybrid offering today spans across crops such as rice, cotton, wheat and vegetables – cauliflower, chilli and lady’s finger among others.

High acceptance

Barring rice, a new entrant in the hybrid space, the acceptance of hybrid varieties is significantly high in other crops. For instance, hybrid cotton account for 95 per cent of the total acreage under the crop, followed by sorghum (90 per cent) and bajra (85 per cent).

In most vegetables, the acreage under hybrid seed varieties is in excess of 50 per cent of the total acreage. “As the country moved from local varieties to high-yielding ones and thereon to hybrid and now to technology products either genetically engineered (GM) or non-GM varieties, there has been tremendous increase in productivity,” she says.

Though the opening up of foreign investment in the agricultural space also necessitated additional investment in technology to survive the competition from multinationals, the industry’s approach has also changed since the adoption of Bt technology in cotton.

“The benefit that farmers realised from this technology was something they had not even imagined. As a result, the shift from hybrid to transgenic varieties such as Bt was very fast,” says Zehr. Technologies which have been cleared by experts to be safe and have been given the go ahead by regulatory agencies are sitting on shelf and farmers have been denied access, she says. Mahyco’s Bt brinjal is one example.

Despite the product securing bio-safety clearance from the regulatory body – Genetic Engineering Advisory Council (GEAC) and completion of review by two expert committees – commercial release has been delayed due to imposition of a moratorium by the Environment Ministry.

It has been four years now since the moratorium was imposed and the company is still awaiting communication from the GEAC. Meanwhile, the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) which in-licensed Bt Brinjal technology from Mahyco has released four varieties of Brinjal in 2013.

“With the new Government at the Centre, we hope that these committees will meet more regularly now and move forward applications that have been pending for many years now,” says Zehr.

However, regulatory hurdles have not deterred the company from investing in research. Mahyco spends almost 15 per cent of its total revenues (about ₹100-150 crore) annually towards research and development initiatives. The company is currently working on a technology which will enable efficient use of phosphatic fertilisers.

Fertiliser use

“We’ve been able to identify a gene from a bacterium which can quickly dissolve phosphatic fertilisers and can help farmers rationalise fertiliser usage. We have put the gene into rice now,” says Zehr.

In addition to their in-house programmes, Mahyco has also partnered with global technology providers such as the US-based Arcadia Biosciences and Canada-based Performance Plants to license technology. The company will soon commence trials for rice and cotton with nitrogenous fertiliser use efficiency technology licensed from Arcadia Biosciences; GEAC approval and permission from various State Governments to conduct trials are already in place.

Published on August 15, 2014
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