Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Indian agriculture is largely based on smallholder farmers; such farmers also make up for a large proportion of undernourished people worldwide. But by the use of Bt-cotton technology in Indian agriculture, the economy has tended to bring about a change in the small holder farmers by contributing to an increase in their earnings (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/pbi.12155/pdf). India stood to become the second largest producer of cotton lint in the world by using the Bt- cotton technology, and is poised to become the largest producer of cotton in the world soon, beating China! Such is the contribution of this technology where small and medium holder farmers have also been immensely benefited. If cotton lint is available cheap in India, it would someday become the cheapest supplier of cotton garments to the world after it makes huge improvements in textiles and related technologies.
The latest report on “State of Food Insecurity in the World” mentions that about 842 million people (implying 1 in every 8 people in the world) suffered from chronic hunger in 2011-2013 (http://www.fao.org/publications/sofi/en/). One-third of such people live in India (http://www.bhookh.com/hunger_facts.php). The majority of these people live in the rural areas. The above figures are indicative of serious challenges to be met to increase production in agricultural sectors so as to enable increased income of rural poor. There is no doubt therefore that innovation in agricultural technologies requiring the use of new products and processes would play a key role in developing countries to face such challenges of food shortage.
Seeds are the most important contributors to agricultural productivities. The productivity of seeds is mainly contributed by the genetic makeup of plant cultivars/seeds (http://gandipsbio.com/Articles/Papers/12_GM%20Plants_Ind_Agri_1997.pdf). Use of modern biotechnology in agriculture to improve development of better seeds is certainly therefore one option in the hands of people to mitigate food shortage. The use of the tools of “modern biotechnology” provides insight for better understanding for the selection and multiplication of elite cultivars of varied types.
Use of plant tissue culture techniques for multiplication of clonal elites, followed by hardening of such elites in poly-houses and net houses has contributed to mass production of many plants of fruits and vegetables (http://nsdl.niscair.res.in/bitstream/123456789/668/1/revised+introduction+to+plant+biotechnology.pdf; India has been commercially using plant tissue culture techniques for the last two decades after activities and facilities set up for mass multiplication of elite plants by techniques of plant tissue culture were classified by the Indian Government as an industrial activity. Using tissue culture-raised elite plants, extensive increase in production of banana was possible. Banana cultivation is carried out majorly by the small and medium-scale farmers, utilizing purchased elite planting materials produced in tissue culture facilities. Banana occupies a distinct place in the national as well as in the household economy of Indians. Nutritionally, banana is rich in carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Cultivation of banana has provided a cash-income security to poor banana-growing farmers because it provides almost continuous income flow throughout the year, even under low input regimes (http://www.apcoab.org/uploads/files/1298295339pub_banana.pdf).
By use of "molecular marker-assisted” selection and combining this technique with “plant tissue culture” it is possible to identify, isolate and propagate stress-tolerant and highly productive cultivars. Using these techniques, several new hybrids have been invented such as pearl millet (hybrid HHB67) (http://www.icrisat.org/journal/bioinformatics/v2i1/v2i1teamwork.pdf) and rice (Swarna-Sub1 paddy seeds) (http://www.nature.com/srep/2013/131122/srep03315/full/srep03315.html), which have contributed to increased production, benefitting a large number of small and medium land holders too, while making a considerable contribution to the economy of the country as a whole.
But there is more to it. By the application of genetically modified (GM) technology, combined with plant tissue culture techniques and molecular marker-assisted selection, the scope becomes enormously enhanced. The GM technology, according to Cartagena Protocol on Bio-safety (http://bch.cbd.int/protocol/publications/cartagena-protocol-en.pdf), is defined as the use of any “living modified organism” “that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology”. By utilizing the GM technology, combined with the other two techniques, new GM plant cultivars and novel GM seeds can be developed. Using these new materials, the output in agriculture is expected to leapfrogging in progress as the integrated technology would provide benefits in several aspects to tackle pests and diseases while concomitantly enabling the usage of best cultivars for applications. Mother Nature has provided the varied genetic pool in her creativities. Intelligent recombination can be made by human to develop better combinations to benefit human kind. GM technology as is understood and developed at the present time worldwide provides opportunities for such new recombination although much requires to be understood about the technology. However, the technique as is in the hands of human kind can be used partly by precise knowledge and partly by empirically developed techniques to generate better seeds and more productive cultivars. The technique nevertheless provides great strength and opportunity to human for inventing new seeds and new plant development.
By utilizing GM technology combined with plant tissue culture and molecular marker assisted selection several countries have gone ahead to produce better seeds of cotton, corn, canola, soybean, papaya, potato etc. and that some 29 counties worldwide are being benefitted (http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/briefs/43/executivesummary/default.asp). In India, only Bt cotton technology is being commercially used and certainly more can be done.
Unfortunately, the use of this technology package is dominated by debate in many parts of the world especially in Europe even though the concerns have not yet been founded as actual in practice anywhere in the environment or to human and animal health. In India, by the use of Bt-cotton technology which is a GM technology, the country has enormously been benefitted in every respect including increase in total production, productivities and qualities of cotton lint as also in improving the economic benefits of the small and medium farmers. This was possible by the commitments and support of the Central and the State governments as also by partnerships/collaborations among national and international seed companies. There are also support from a wide section of the vocal public. But while the regulatory approval for the use of other inputs for supporting increased production of cotton such as the use of germ-plasms of elite cotton varieties and hybrids, fertilizers, electricity and water were already in place and the concerned Central and the State Ministries and their agencies were fully supportive to meet the needs of the Indian cultivators, the regulatory approval for the use of Bt-cotton technology was most crucial. After extensive evaluation, this approval was accorded by the Central Government in March 2002. Thus supports came about from all arms of the government and thereafter the results were magnanimous. Without an all-round support from all quarters, the results of Bt-cotton technology would not have been fructified in India.
It is believed that this is also true for being benefitted from the application of GM technology to tackle various stressful conditions in all other crops including cereals, pulses, vegetables, fruits and fibers. There is an urgent need to increase production and productivities in all such agricultural produce.
GM crops shall deliver products that are either cheaper or are nutritionally better or are more durable or can be grown is less friendly environment. GM crops can have multiple of such benefits.
But to a section of the vocal public, genetically modified crops technology is a controversy. This situation has to be changed by scientific reasoning, societal will and political desire if India wishes to address the food security and the broader economic issues of becoming more prosperous as a country.
The good news is that the National Committee on Bio-safety (NCB) in Bangladesh officially approved field release of four varieties of Bt-brinjal in October 2013 (http://cera-gmc.org/uploads/december_2013.pdf). Bangladesh became the first country in Asia to cultivate Bt-brinjal (egg plant), a product of a GM technology. The plants and their parts including the fruits of Bt-brinjal express Bt Cry1Ac protein and are therefore toxic to shoot borers, a destructive pest of the fruit. By cultivating Bt-brinjal, the yield of good qualities of eggplant is anticipated to substantially increase. It is expected that this announcement of Bangladesh will go a long way in enabling to adopt a whole range of GM technologies in many countries of the world and India would not remain an exception.
The Indian Public sector, which has contributed enormously to the developments in Indian agriculture, has contributed very little in GM–crops technology front. There is no dedicated Indian Public-Sector Institution for developing all aspects of GM–crops technology.
It is suggested that the new government, whoever may come, recognize the importance of GM technology and announce about setting up of a dedicated institution in the public sector, with a substantial outlay, to be spent over a period of years with detailed application-oriented programs to generate more basic understanding of GM-crop science and technology. The aim in one word should be to develop “better seeds” by application of modern biotechnology. Invention and innovations are the needs for the country in this very important area of agriculture.