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The ongoing pandemic has brought forward our vulnerability to food crisis, especially with our increasing population. In addition, the challenges of future, will be much different than the ones in past because of factors like climate change, reduced availability of land and water, soil degradation and changing food preferences of people. Crop improvement by using science and modern technologies, improving agronomic practices and resource efficiency in food production would be crucial for future of agriculture. We must adopt new technologies to keep up with the challenges of safeguarding our environment and resources. The objective of agricultural biotechnology, as in plant breeding, is crop improvement. Genetic Engineering allows plant breeders to take a desirable character or trait such as insect resistance or drought tolerance from any organism and transfer it to the plant they want to improve. While the limitation of improving crops through conventional techniques is that the crops can be crossed within the same or related species only, whereas using agricultural biotechnology, the crops can be improved using the gene source from any living organism.
Agricultural biotechnology in India has tremendous potential. It is a sector where global collaborations by both private sector and public institutions can have significant positive impact on the sustainable productivity improvement According to a report by Mackenzie, it is estimated that adoption of hybrids along with biotechnology can contribute annually up to Rs 25,600 crore in 2025. Globally it has increased farmers’ profit by 68 percent. A recent study by Brookes and Barfoot concluded that since its introduction in 1996, GM crops have added more than US$150 billion whereas in 2014 alone, the direct benefit was more than US$17 billion.
GM technology can tap into the vast pool of genetic resources to improve crops to provide economic benefits to farmers, nutritional benefits to consumers and make a positive impact to the environment. The best-known example of such improvement in India is insect resistant Bt-cotton. Since its adoption in 2002, India from being net importer, became an exporter of cotton and the largest producer of cotton in the world. Insect resistant cotton alone, has contributed a 43 percent reduction in the total volume of active ingredient used on GM crops (-249.1 million kg active ingredient, equivalent to a 27.9 percent reduction in insecticide use). With over a decade of its adoption, several socio-economic studies have proved the benefits this technology has brought to our country.
Pulses and Oilseeds are the key crops in which India is not self-sufficient. We are the largest importer of pulses (4 million tonnes/annum) approx. value of Rs 14,000 crore per annum and the consumption is growing every year. Agricultural biotechnology can help us to produce sufficient volume of pulses and oilseeds to meet our domestic demand thereby bridging the production gap we have in the country and saving valuable foreign exchange. Pulses are attacked by lepidopteran insects and introduction of insect resistance in some of the pulses will significantly help in increasing the production. It is estimated that introduction of Bt-chickpea alone can increase production by two million tonnes per annum, reducing imports worth Rs 6,000 crore per year.
India also imports edible oil worth Rs 60,000 crore, though with adoption of Bt-cotton, cotton seed oil production did increase from 5 lakh MT in 2002-2003 to 14.8 MT in 2013-14. But higher production of oilseed crops such as mustard and soybean through biotechnology can contribute further to the edible oil production (by 7.75 lakh tonnes) and reduce edible oil imports worth Rs 4,000 crore. GM mustard that will enable better hybrid development has been generated by public sector and will significantly help in bridging the yield gap.
Other examples of improved consumer traits include edible oils with modified fatty acid profile, and phytase maize with improved nutritional profile for the animals is also under advanced stages of regulatory clearance in the world. Soybeans modified to produced high amount of oleic acid as in Olives are also available for public consumption in the US. We need to look at output traits as means to improve the nutritional security of the nation. India is one of biggest producer of Rice that utilises high amounts of insecticide with an estimated market size of Rs 2,500 crore. Pest and disease resistance rice will see a major reduction in the use of pesticides with the associated environmental benefits. Transplanted rice is also the single crop that consumes the maximum amount of water. With increasing shortage of water, farmers are moving towards adoption of direst seeded rice cultivation, which requires herbicide tolerance trait to manage weeds in the field. Herbicide tolerant technology in rice would serve the dual purpose of saving significant amount of water as well as reduce dependence on manual labour for weeding. Such value added traits would complement the existing efforts of increasing rice production through traditional breeding.
Some of our vegetable crops like brinjal, okra, cabbage and tomato require huge amount of insecticides and introduction of insect resistant trait will reduce huge crop losses and result in lesser pesticide residues. Vegetables utilise an estimated Rs 1200 crore worth of insecticides. It is to be highlighted that Bangladesh has been growing Bt-Brinjal for the last four years, reaping all its benefits with no adverse effects.
Biotechnology can also help farmers manage different agro-climatic situations. The agrarian distress is experienced most in the rain fed areas where the farmer is highly vulnerable to crop losses due to uncertain weather conditions. The risk bearing capacity of the farmers in the areas like Maharashtra, Telangana, North Karnataka and similar dry areas is also very low due to historical crop failures caused by limited rain. It is estimated that by 2025 more than 1.8 billion people globally will be living in the regions of water scarcity. Technologies which can benefit the farmers in these areas need to be given highest priority. Drought tolerance or Water use Efficiency (WUE) technology could be a boon as it allows farmers to grow crops with almost 25-30 percent less water. WUE technology needs to be incorporated into crops like cotton, pulses and oilseeds for the benefit of the farmers in the dry areas. Similarly, about 20 million hectare of our land is saline in nature and it’s further increasing due to improper use of water and fertilisers. A biotech solution like salinity tolerance trait can change the lives of these farmers.
There is an urgent need to optimise the use of fertilisers in the country because of the adverse effect they have on the soil structure when used in excess quantities and also the huge annual subsidy spending of the Government (about Rs 1 lakh crore). It is a well- known fact that only 30 percent of the fertiliser applied, especially Potash and Phosphorus, is taken up by the plants and the rest is wasted. Newer varieties developed for better fertiliser use capability would have better plant performance, lesser variability in yield, reduced soil and water pollution and stop unnecessary abuse of the government subsidy.
More than 12 food and non-food crops have been grown and consumed worldwide. However, the critics of the technology often state that countries in the European Union (EU) do not grow or consume GM crops. However, EU has approved record number of research field trials and it is the largest importer of GM products from countries like USA, Canada, Brazil and Argentina. Most of the maize and soybean imported into EU is genetically modified. Other western economies such as USA, Canada, Australia are growing GM crops and many of the Asian countries such as Japan, Korea, China, The Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Pakistan either grow or import GM crops. In Philippines, the introduction of GM maize has resulted in cost advantage of 10 percent to the farmers over a decade. In 2011, total benefit of GM corn in the Philippines was around US$ 400 million. Countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and Pakistan have also commercialised the GM maize technology.
GM crops are safe to grow and consume. This technology is one of the most regulated technology in the world. The Indian regulatory agency Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) consists of experts from all relevant organisations to review the biosafety of these crops. It is worth noting that the Bangladesh government accepted the review of biosafety of Bt-Brinjal by the GEAC and approved its commercial cultivation. Finally, people around the world have been consuming products of biotech crops for more than 20 years and there is not even a single verified case of any concern on human health. It is estimated that more than 3 trillion meals have been served which contain products of biotech crops.
We are one of very few developing nations that has the human resource and capability to develop this technology on our own. Instead of losing this talent and capability, India can set an example and become the world leader in biotechnology. It will significantly contribute to the ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’ campaign launched by the current government. With the adoption of biotechnology, India will be able to reduce food imports, save precious foreign exchange and enjoy surplus as demonstrated in case of Bt cotton.
(The author of the article, Dr Shivendra Bajaj is the Executive Director of Federation of Seed Industry of India. Views expressed in the article are author's own.)