Bt cotton introduced in 2002 has transformed India from cotton importing country to second largest exporter of the world. But, the issue of GM crops has been complex and controversial in the country. Shilpa Divekar Nirula, Managing Director, Monsanto India discusses with Mohd Mustaquim on the developments in biotechnology in agriculture, potential of GM crops, its current status, challenges and future road map
What are the key focus areas of Monsanto in India?
Our mission is to partner India and its farmers in their quest towards prosperity and progress. To increase yields sustainably, Monsanto is contributing effectively through innovation in breeding, technology, agronomy and partnerships.
In India, we work in four broad segments – corn, cotton, vegetables and herbicides. We conduct research focused on developing Germplasm, the seed required for India specific growing conditions. Further, we emphasise our efforts to equip farmers with knowledge with advanced agronomic practices. We are committed to developing technologies that enable farmers to produce more yields while conserving natural resources. These yield gains come from a combination of advanced plant breeding, biotechnology, and improved farm-management practices.
What kind of solutions does Monsanto offer to Indian farmers? And what feedback do you get from them?
We have partnered Indian agriculture for over four decades. During this period, we have learnt of the diverse farming challenges and the tremendous impact that agricultural research can bring about. We believe in the power of innovation and partnerships that help farmers increase their yield and incomes from farming.
We have supplemented farmers’ efforts by providing hybrid seeds that improve yields, herbicides to protect crops and complement hard work with smarter agronomic practices.
Over the years, our herbicide brand ‘Roundup’ has continued to be Indian farmers’ trusted choice for weed management. Introduction of the country’s first in-the-seed, insect-protection technology in cotton seeds, in association with Mahyco, witnessed the fastest adoption by the cotton farmers in India. This has resulted in revolutionising cotton production in India and spurred the growth of the domestic cotton seed industry.
Our high-yielding ‘Dekalb’ hybrid corn seeds are among farmers’ most preferred hybrid maize seeds grown across 18 states and available in 17 high-yielding hybrids to suit India’s diverse agronomic and climatic conditions. Each hybrid is developed in India and tested extensively through our partnerships with several State Agricultural Universities and other leading agricultural institutions.
Our high-yielding ‘Seminis’ hybrid vegetable seeds offer more than 110 distinct vegetable seeds presenting major vegetable crops of the country including beans, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, cucumber, pickling cucumber, eggplant, gourds, hot pepper, musk melon, onion, radish, squash, sweet pepper, tomato, watermelon and other crops.
To further research in agriculture, globally we invest approximately Rs 7,500 Crore annually in R&D, to offer farmers improved seeds.
How do you convince farmers to use your products?
Farmers are intelligent and make choices which benefit them most. In any farming system, farmers will need nutrients for plant growth, and some solutions to control pest attacks, manage weeds, manage crops in drought-like or flood conditions, which could be in-the-seed biotechnologies such as Bt cotton or other technologies. Farmers will choose those that create value on their farm and in their lives.
We have been partnering with Indian farmers for over four decades. Our field team, 80 percent of whom are from rural backgrounds, work in villages, and are focused round-the-year on working with farmers to help them optimise their yields. Our researchers are simultaneously creating technologies so farmers can produce and earn more, with greater efficiency, convenience and less risk. We conduct extensive demos and market activities to best communicate product benefits to farmers.
How do you customise your products for Indian farmers?
Monsanto India follows a robust process for advancement of hybrid seeds from the breeding pipeline. Our state-of-the-art Mega Breeding facility is based at Bangalore, with breeding centres across different locations in India. Our breeding teams continue to deliver products developed specifically to meet the requirements of local growing conditions in various agro-climatic zones of the country.
There is a big information gap among farmers on farm practices. How does Monsanto work on bridging this gap?
In 2010, Monsanto launched a free crop advisory service Monsanto Farm AgVisory Service (MFAS), which offers mobile-based, value-added services to assist farmers with crop management and agronomic practices. Available 365 days a year, MFAS is a customised approach to provide farmers with useful information on a variety of issues to help them manage crops better.
It offers timely and customised crop management advisory to enable 13 lakh maize, cotton and vegetable farmers to improve farm yields. It is available in 17 states and in seven Indian languages. The platform provides farmers with timely and customised, round-the-season advisory during different crop stages including pre-sowing, crop management and harvesting.
What is the current status of GM trials in India?
We are happy to see that recently the Government has reiterated a need to use all available tools to increase crop productivity, including better seeds and biotechnologies.
Indian farmers have voted for the choice of seeds with biotechnologies by planting hybrid cotton biotech seeds on over 90 percent of the country’s cotton acreage, doubling cotton production, and making the country the world’s second largest cotton producer and exporter. Farmers understand value and welcome choices and demonstration of performance on their farms and it benefits the society as well.
We are confident that the Government will consider views from the larger stakeholder base, especially Indian farmers and academics and take a considered decision on this subject.
The issue of GM crops has been complex in India. In this context, how do you see the future?
Agriculture intersects the toughest challenges we face as a nation and planet, i.e. feeding and clothing a growing population of nearly 9 billion, managing stagnant or diminishing natural resources amidst climate change and bringing large numbers of people out of poverty, a majority of whom live in rural or farm-based communities.
Seven million Indian farmers have transformed Indian and global cotton economy, by doubling cotton production using higher-yielding hybrid cotton seeds with in-the-seed insect protection Bt cotton technologies. Farmers have benefited through increased income, productivity, and as a result, are able to give their families a better life.
With growing consumer demand, limited natural resources and climate change, farmers need to increase food, fibre and energy production while protecting the environment. And the improving quality of lives of the world’s one billion farmers is critical.
We believe, it will take new innovations and partnerships by a diverse group of solution-oriented organisations, including other businesses, citizen groups and governments, with many points of view to work together and take action to overcome one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century.
How has been the journey of GM crops so far and what possibilities they have to transform Indian agriculture sector?
Bt cotton, introduced in 2002, is the only technology which has been approved for commercial cultivation in India. The technology continues to propel India as one of the world’s largest producer of cotton and benefit cotton farmers in the country.
It is important to consider that for the nation’s economy to grow at a high rate, it is imperative that the agriculture sector plays its role. While there have been improvements in agricultural conditions over the past decades, the challenges facing the Indian farmer are still many.
Would you like to comment on the regulations for GM crops in India?
Farmers expect agricultural input innovators to demonstrate efficacy of farm products in an open field environment. The regulatory mechanism in India is amongst the most comprehensive and robust in the world and takes into account the latest developments of biotechnology. The Indian regulatory system has evolved taking into cognizance leading systems from around the world and is compliant with Codex Alimentarius Commission created by FAO and WHO to develop food standards, guidelines and related texts for safety testing of biotech crops and is comparable with other nations that approve biotech crops for cultivation and import.
All Research and Regulatory Trials are conducted as per the regulatory guidelines, monitored strictly by the Indian Regulatory Authority-appointed Monitoring and Compliance Committees who ensure trial protocols are followed and required data quality is maintained. In addition, several research and regulatory trials are also conducted with agriculture institutes and universities.