Opinion

Biotech crucial for food security

RAM KAUNDINYA | Updated on July 05, 2011 Published on June 30, 2011

Cotton yields have doubled since the introduction of Bt technology.

Mr Ram Kaundinya

Biotechnology can play a major role in bridging the supply-demand gap in food by raising input efficiencies. However, a misconception has been created that this technology is genetic modification and little else.

For almost 25 years post independence, India imported food grains, particularly wheat. Under a programme called PL480, we received aid in the form of foodgrains. We did not have the capacity to produce the wheat required to feed our population. The first breakthrough in our wheat productivity came through the introduction of dwarf Mexican varieties.

Similarly, a revolution in rice productivity came about through the introduction of IRRI varieties from the Philippines such as IR8 and IR64. Later, we combined the imported varieties with our own varieties and developed even higher yielding varieties. In fact, India's food security and self-sufficiency story is a result of a free flow of varieties and lines from several other countries; international institutions and Indian agricultural scientists combined their best materials with such lines to produce high-yielding varieties and hybrids.

The enormous progress we made in food production during the 1970s and 1980s has given us a sense of food security. However, the situation does not look comfortable, given the ever-growing population.

PRODUCTIVITY CHALLENGE

According to a working paper by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), India would have to double its food production by 2020. The demand for meat, fish and eggs is expected to go up by 2.8 times; the demand for cereals is expected to double; the demand for vegetables and fruits is expected to go up by 1.8 times and the demand for milk is expected to go up by 2.6 times compared with 2007. This rising demand will create further pressure on land and water in India over next 10-15 years.

Between 1991 and 2007, the crop yields in India have been stagnant, except in the case of cotton. Ministry of Agriculture data reveals that during this period the yields of crops like wheat, rice, pulses, soybeans and sugarcane have grown by 0.19- 1.4 per cent per annum.

However, in the same period, the yields of cotton have grown by 4.38 per cent per annum, which actually demonstrates the push GM technology managed to give to this crop. So far, Bt cotton is the only GM crop approved for cultivation in India and has delivered enormous benefits to Indian farmers. About 5.8 million Indian cotton farmers are now growing Bt cotton on more than 25 million acres of land. Cotton yields have doubled since the introduction of the technology in 2002. From a net importer of cotton, India is now the second largest exporter and producer of cotton.

The current rate of growth in crop yields cannot help us meet the challenge of doubling our food production by 2020. We need to think of ways and means to achieve this objective. One important way to increase the availability of food is to increase the productivity of land and water in the country. This is not an easy task in view of pressure of industrialisation, lack of arable land and depleting water tables. However, there is great scope for increasing crop yields through improved agronomic practices and crop improvement. It is estimated that improved agronomic practices can increase yields by about 50 per cent, while crop improvement can increase yields by more than 50 per cent.

All these measures like minimising wastage in the supply chain, improving the productivity of land, water and saline soils, improving agronomic practices and crop improvement have to be used as a package to make adequate food available to our growing population in the next 25-40 years. Against the above realities, agricultural biotechnology offers a key solution to meeting these growing challenges.

POTENTIAL OF BIOTECH

A misconception has been created that all agricultural biotechnology is genetic modification. This is not correct. Agricultural biotechnology consists of many traits and techniques, of which the genetic modification is the most popular. Molecular marker-based selection is the tool now extensively used in India and abroad to enhance the speed and precision of plant breeding. Apart from this, there are many other tools like dihaploids, tissue culture and others which are biotech tools used extensively to improve plant breeding.

Genetically improved seeds were introduced in the world in 1996. In 2010, a record 15.4 million farmers in 29 countries planted 148 million hectares of biotech crops, with 90 per cent, or 14.4 million being small and resource-poor farmers in developing countries. This share has been growing very rapidly in the last five years as the acceptance of GM crops has gone up substantially.

There are two types of GM traits — input traits and the output traits. Input traits are those which incorporate a character into the plant, as a result of which the way in which an input is used on the crop is modified. The primary beneficiary of these traits is the farmer. An example is the insect tolerant trait (Bt) which gives the plant the strength to fight the insect pests that attack the crop. This trait modifies the way insecticides are used on the crop. Another example is the herbicide tolerant trait which modifies the way herbicides are used on the crop.

Very exciting input traits are in the pipeline. For example, water use efficiency trait which will reduce the water requirements of the crops considerably (estimated to be 30 per cent reduction) and can help the vast number of farmers who cultivate rainfed crops in the country in more than 100 million hectares. Similarly, the nitrogen use efficiency trait which will reduce the use of nitrogenous fertiliser on the crops by an estimated 30 per cent.

Another trait that is waiting in the wings is the salt tolerance trait which can help farmers grow crops in saline soils of more than 20 million ha in India. These three traits can make a huge difference to Indian agriculture.

On the other hand the output traits are those which modify the character of the output of the crop. The primary beneficiary of these traits is the consumer. These traits will require identity-preserved output management from the field to the fork. Contract farming systems will be important to make this technology successful. An example is the Golden Rice technology which produces Vitamin A-enriched rice grain. Similarly, there are healthy oils being produced with modified fatty acid profile.The safety of GM technology is well established by a rigorous regulatory process the world over, after which it is approved for use. The regulatory process for GM crops is stringent in all countries and the resultant data that is submitted to the Governments is adequate to prove the safety of this technology.

(The author is CEO, Advanta India, and Chairman, Association of Biotech Led Enterprises - Agriculture Group. blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

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Published on June 30, 2011
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