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Biotech crops can double agricultural productivity

Prof Bidyut Kumar Sarmah Director Department of Biotechnology - Assam Agricultural University DBT-AAU Centre has been awarded by the ICAR with the prestigious Norman Borlaug Chair A well known name in agricultural biotechnology Prof Sarmah in an interview with BK Jha talks about challenges of agricultural biotechnology in India and related issues

Prof. Bidyut Kumar Sarmah
Director, DBT-AAU Centre
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Where do we (India) stand in terms of agricultural biotechnology research, compared to developed world. What needs to be done to meet the specific requirements of agri sector in the country ?

The biotechnology sector in our country has been showing a strong growth path and we are the leading nation in Asia in terms of Biotechnology R&D. The biotech industry in India comprising of Biopharmaceuticals, bio-services, bio-agriculture and bio-informatics is growing at a Compounded Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 20 percent. According to Global Industry Analysis, the Biotechnology industry in India is expected to reach US$11.6 billion by 2017. The bio-pharmaceutical sector accounts for the largest share of the biotech industry with a share of 64 percent and contribution of bio-agri is 14 percent.

The Indian biotech industry is expected to grow at an average growth of 30 percent a year and will reach USD 100 Billion by 2025. The major objectives that are proposed to be achieved by 2025 under Agri-biotech sector are eradication of malnutrition of protein and vitamins through genetically modified crops and two fold increase in agricultural productivity through the development of biotech crops. I believe this will help attaining food and nutritional security by adopting GM crops. I feel happy that we are 12th Biotech destination in the world with the second highest number of US-FDA approved plants, after the USA

Are we spending adequately to achieve the set targets?

As per the report of Agricultural Biotechnology Annual, our Government is planning to spend USD 3.7 billion in Biotechnology sector during 2012-16. This year, according to the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE), the Centre has allocated 12.5 percent more funds under the DBT which is obviously a positive indication to do more innovative work using biotechnological approaches.
How is the journey so far with regard to agricultural biotechnology?

The agricultural biotechnology is now the third largest sector in the domestic biotech industry. The sector deals with both conventional hybrid seeds and GM seeds, all based on yield improvement. India has almost 11.6 million hectares of area under Bt cotton cultivation in 2014.Current estimate of benefit to India with a single biotech crop is about US$ 15 billion. The share of agriculture in the total biotechnology industry revenue has grown over the past five years from less than 5 percent to over 14 percent in 2016.

In USA genetically modified crops are a significant component of the bio-economy. The US farmers have rapidly adopted many of these new GM crops. By 2014, 88 percent corn, 94 percent of the cotton, and 93 percent of the soybeans planted in the US were Genetically Modified.  Domestic revenues from genetically modified systems are growing at approximately 15 percent annually, much faster than the economy as a whole.

What about its ( Agri-Bio) growth in India?

In India, we are looking forward to a second green revolution and I believe that this message is positively received by farmers, scientists, research organizations, Agri-universities and seed companies. The government of India has initiated a lot of activities such as a National Mission on pulse crop improvement, soil health testing centre, public-private-partnership for strengthening of R&D in public institutes etc. These will positively contribute to the Agri biotech sector and will open up opportunities in the R&D in Agri biotech. However, policy makers need to understand that an increase in the budgetary allocation for Agri biotech research and the establishment of a proper regulatory system will support the scientific community to bring more agri-biotechnology crops to address the issue of food and nutritional security. I feel that taking adequate steps to release GM crops in the field will encourage scientists to continue their GM crop development.

The government should take advantage of Agri biotech under the umbrella of 'Make in India' policy and provide more incentives for investment in R&D for biotech seed production in India. Till date except Bt cotton, the government has not allowed any other GM food crops to be cultivated commercially. Scientists in both private and public institutions must care for conducting quality science to attract superior brains in this field.


What are the major challenges for agriculture research in India?

There are many challenges. First of all, increasing productivity of food crops per unit of land and at the same time keeping the environment clean are big challenges. Presently 170 million hectare of arable land are likely to reduce to 100 million hectare by 2020 while this sector needs to feed the growing population which is estimated to be 1.5 billion by 2030. Secondly, policies and incentives to recognize and reward farmers doing sustainable natural resource management must be in place. Third, we need more research spending on the development of climate resilient crops and implementation of policies to assist the agricultural sector to adapt to global climate changes. Finally, ensuring that agricultural growth meets the food and nutritional security needs is also very critical. Greater emphasis should be given on reducing post-harvest losses which may lower down the burden of importing foods.

Does Assam also face the same challenges -given the diverse agro climatic zones ?

Yes. You are true in saying that Assam has diverse agro-climate zones. In Assam apart from aforementioned challenges another drawback in agriculture is the fragmented land and lack of interest for cooperative farming though over 70 percent population of the state still relies on agriculture. The land holding in the plain areas of Assam is very small and not useful for sustainable economy. Moreover, occurrence of flood every year leads to loss of arable lands in the state. On the other hand, lack of irrigation facilities in the upland creates lack of interest amongst farmers to go for pulses or vegetable cultivations. The acid condition of the soils of this region results in low phosphorus availability to crops, leading to low yields and other problems such as aluminum toxicity. This region is famous for horticultural crops, including floriculture however absence of post-harvest storage facility is severe constrain to horticultural produce. In this region a comprehensive database with inputs from biotechnology for agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry and fisheries is urgently required to exploit the rich natural biodiversity.

How can we meet these challenges?

In order to meet these challenges, the current agricultural research must invest resources in Gene based solution for biotic and abiotic stresses in major food crops. Reducing post-harvest losses, healthier and nutritionally enhanced food with biotechnological interventions can help to a large extent. Promoting organic agriculture would be yet another viable solution. Under the “Doubling of food production” programme of the Centre, maximum emphasis has been given in both gene technology and molecular marker technology for the improvement of crop plants. The government has taken steps towards Private Public Partnership mode of conducting research and that should be further strengthened to meet the challenges, I personally feel. A Network of Technology Centre and promotion of start-ups by Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI) are among the steps taken by the Government of India to promote innovation and entrepreneurship in the agro industry.

What is being done at AAU level ?

ICAR has kept challenges open for the agricultural scientists with the announcement of ICAR Challenge award. ICAR research priorities area includes Eradication of bacterial blight in Pomegranate, Development a sugarcane variety fully resistant to red rot, Developing a variety of pulse crop fully resistant to pod borer, RNA interference (RNAi) based cure for foot and mouth diseases (FMD) among others. I am happy that my group at AAU in collaboration with NRCPB, New Delhi and Sungro Seeds, New Delhi is working to meet one of these challenges that is “development of biotech chickpeas resistant to pod borers.”

Biotechnology can revolutionise productivity but there are concerns about regulatory mechanism, safety. How do you think these issues can be resolved?

I support existence of a regulatory mechanism for all food stuffs irrespective of whether developed by biotech intervention or by non-biotech approach. So, it is good to have proper regulatory system for biotech products as well. I think Govt should pass the BRAI (Biotech Regulatory Authority of India) bill, 2013 which was proposed for the promotion of modern biotechnology in the country. I personally believe that this will facilitate to take more rational decisions towards release of biotech products although the main opposition of this bill is that the promoters of Biotechnology cannot be the Regulators.

General public is also apprehensive about Biotech/GM crops. What is required on this front?

Scientists working in the area of development of biotech / GM crops should devote time in public awareness programme so that general public actually understands what these products are. The general public must have clear message about the fact the GM crops are safer, environment friendly and non-invasive to the existing bio-diversity. The critical question are whether we should use the term Genetically modified crops for the products created by simple Recombinant DNA technology when conventional breeding technology such as Hybridization, Mutation breeding are also genetic modification of plant or animal and are performed for several decades. We need good science communicators to make people understand about these issues. China is taking aggressive steps conducting such awareness programmes in order to commercialize their GM corn and rice.

You are  well known figure in the field of agricultural  biotechnology research for developing insect-resistant Bt-Chickpea. The Group of Secretaries (GoS) has recommended ‘Deregulation’ for this.  What would be the impact of this breakthrough?

Government of India has given emphasis on pulse production because we are importing huge amount of pulses from other countries. As per official data, the country’s pulses import of 4.58 million tonnes (mt) were valued at $2.79 billion. In the current fiscal year, imports have already touched 4.41 mt for the April-December period, entailing a foreign exchange outgo of $2.96 billion. The government spends time to identify the cause for such huge import and find solution to this. This is why the GoS has recommended deregulation of one of the most important GM pulses that is chickpea developed by our group. With the average increase of 25 percent yield in the back crossed derivatives developed by Sungro Seeds using our Bt-chickpea genetic stock during the first BRL1 trials at AP, I believe with the commercialization of such lines will bring in a major impact in the pulse production in our country.

The Modi Government has accorded priority to Agriculture sector and research being the most critical component, do you think funds allocated to the sector in general and for agri-research in particular are sufficient to achieve set goals?

Our present Govt seems to be for the technology advancement. The total allocation for Science and Technology for 2015-16 was Rs 7200 crore. This year the Ministry of Science and Technology got an outlay of 7,288 crore. This Ministry runs both DBT and DST. Thus, the government is pouring 12.5 percent more to DBT and DST. The increase might seem marginal, but is a clear indication that the present government in keen on Science and Technology R&D. The government is ambitious to turn India into a world hub for biotechnology by 2020. The program is to expand research in vaccines, the human genome, infectious and chronic diseases, crop science, animal agriculture and aquaculture, food and nutrition, environmental management, and clean energy technologies. The agriculture sector is also likely to have a major change as the government investing heavily in the technology-driven Green Revolution. 

Where do we stand compared to developed countries in such spending ?

Although the government is keen on ‘Make in India’ policy, that will come true only by hefty investment in R&D. Japan, Germany, USA, UK demonstrated that heavy investment in R&D translates easily to economic growth. Israel and Korea are the biggest spenders on R&D at 4.21 percent and 4.15 percent of GDP respectively. Although the Indian government promised to invest 2 percent GDP in R&D, it is still not more than 0.9 percent since 2005.

Kindly share details of your contributions.

We developed transgenic chickpeas with complete protection against pod borers (Helicoverpa armigera) using Bt-Cry2Aa gene and Bt-Cry1Ac gene in collaboration with CSIRO, Canberra and NRCPB, under Indo-Swiss Collaboration in Biotechnology (ISCB) programme. At present our Bt work has been funded by the DBT, Govt of India and NSF (ICAR), Govt of India and new transgenic lines are being developed. Earlier we also developed stored grain pests (Callosobruchous sp) resistant chickpeas in collaboration with CSIRO, Canberra using a bean amylase inhibitor gene. This was the first success story from our group. This project was funded by the McKnight Foundation, USA. Our technology has been transferred to many public organizations such as IIPR (Indian Institute of Pulses Research, Kanpur), ICRISAT, Patencheru and Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana.

So far, our private partner Sungro Seeds has completed BRL1 trials of Bt-chickpeas in two districts of AP during Rabi 2014 and 2015. The data collected from these confined field trials are encouraging in regard to tolerance to insects and yield per experimental plot. The large scale trial will only tell us the actual impact and we seek full support from the government and the public to carry out our trials and eventual release of our insect resistant chickpeas for the end users (farmers). 

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