Agri Business

‘Farm research needs regulator to be predictable’

G. Chandrashekhar Mumbai | Updated on March 12, 2018

Gyanendra Shukla, CEO, Monsanto India.

A 24-year agriculture veteran, Dr Gyanendra Shukla, Ph.D. (Agriculture Botany) and MBA, recently took over as Regional Lead and CEO, Monsanto India, with a group turnover of Rs 1,000 crore. He is the first scientist to become the company’s CEO, succeeding finance and strategy experts who held the position before him.

Business Line caught up with Dr Shukla to get to know his vision for Indian agriculture and his company’s plans. Excerpts:

Can you enumerate some of the latest research initiatives of the Indian agri-biotech industry and how these will benefit the country?

India’s large pool of agriculture science talent, entrepreneurial farmers and diverse natural resources can together enable farmers’ progress, self-sufficiency and contribute to helping meet other nations’ needs.

There are over 150 local and international private and public sector institutions developing better seeds to offer farmers choices for superior insect protection, efficient weed management, drought and flood tolerance, nitrogen use efficiency, heat and cold tolerance, salt tolerance, virus and disease tolerance, and higher yield. Researchers are also evaluating introduction of seeds that deliver consumer benefits such as healthier oils and improved nutritional content.

The Indian agri-biotech industry’s focus is on innovation and partnerships to enable farmers to improve lives by producing more and conserving more. We invest about $1.4 billion or Rs 7,500 crore annually in R&D to offer farmers improved seeds in corn, cotton, soya, canola and vegetables – two-thirds of which is advanced seed breeding and about a third on biotechnology traits.

There is a perception the Indian agri-biotech industry has stagnated in recent years and policymaking has reached a dead-end. Is this perception correct? What’s holding up growth-oriented policies?

Policymakers say they want farmers to progress, and our nation to be self-sufficient. These objectives are shared by private and development sector as well, albeit our routes sometimes create partnerships, sometimes differ.

While farmers in our fellow emerging nations such as Brazil and China access the latest advances in cutting-edge agri biotechnologies for planting and/or import, and six million Indian farmers once again plant hybrid Bt cotton seeds on over 90 per cent of cotton acres, it has been quite a few years since India approved any new agriculture biotechnology for our farmers.

In June this year, Brazil and China approved the world's latest biotechnologies – China approved Drought Tolerant Corn technologies; and a Brazil-specific Soyabean Insect Protection Technology was approved in both Brazil and China. Farmers in the US and sub-Saharan Africa will access Drought Tolerant corn seeds in the next 12 months.

On the other hand, farmers in India who faced a drought last year have no sight of when, if ever, they will have these choices. Brazil has approved new biotechnologies in double digits in the past five years. The last one approved for Indian farmers was Bt cotton technology in 2008.

Approving in-the-seed insect protection Bt cotton technology in 2002, India was one of the early starters. Farmers doubled the nation’s cotton production, earned higher income, created rural jobs due to more cotton picking, experienced convenience and better health from less insecticide sprays for bollworms. Cottonseed oil contributes to domestic edible oil needs (it’s the top choice in Gujarat). And farmers turned India from a net importer to the world’s second largest cotton producer and exporter.

India’s science-based regulatory system is comparable with the best in the world; yet can evolve in predictability. Research needs the encouragement of regulatory predictability; so, after research, testing and meeting stated protocols, we can offer farmers new technologies.

What’s the industry's gameplan to wrest a favourable policy from the Government?

All forecasts indicate domestic food, feed and fibre needs doubling between 2020 and 2030, on the back of rising incomes, fuelled by a rapidly growing GDP. The use of the latest seeds, technologies, knowledge, practices, and market access must be encouraged.

While we are a growing industry, 200+ seed companies, and 12 companies focused on agri-biotech R&D, we continue to represent the potential to create shared value for 130 million farmers, processing and user industry, and enhance rural income and jobs. The goal is to increase productivity and, by extension, farmers’ incomes. We hope continuous dialogue with Governments and other stakeholders will enable farmers, research and development, and India’s scientific talent in agriculture to flourish.

The industry seems to be under steady attack from activists. How does it propose to counter them?

Certain anti-technology activists continue to deny farmers this credit. Let each farmer make his own choices. We are focused on education and communication. Our field team, 80 per cent of whom are from rural backgrounds, work in villages daily, and are focused round-the-year on working with farmers in their fields to help them optimise their yields across States. We have been partnering with Indian farmers for over four decades. Our researchers are simultaneously creating technologies so farmers can produce more and earn more, with greater efficiency, convenience, and less risk.

Now that you are in-charge, what are your priorities for the company (Monsanto) in terms of research, in terms of market share for products and turnover?

I believe enabling farmers to improve their lives through innovative products, services, partnerships, and passionate people can make India a self-sufficient global contributor in agriculture. That’s our priority.

In order to meet farmers’ needs, we have seven seed R&D sites across States focused on innovating, developing and testing our India-relevant seeds under diverse agro-climatic conditions, as well as a biotech research centre in Karnataka. We have enhanced our seed R&D footprint and initiatives to develop newer and better India-relevant hybrid seeds for farmers for the rabi and kharif seasons.

In services and improving agronomic practices, our field sales and market development team contacted over a million farmers directly across States, and our ‘Monsanto Farm AgVisory Service (MFAS)’ offered over 900,000 farmers timely, customised crop management advisory from sowing-to-harvest, enabling farmers to enhance yields and income.

Lastly, we are working to build more partnerships. We are participating in Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) in Jammu & Kashmir, Odisha, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh; and in development sector partnerships for sustainable agriculture to improve farmers’ lives by increasing yields via better inputs, knowledge and market linkages.

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Published on August 12, 2013
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