Don’t narrow the field

The goal of low-input, high-output agriculture calls for crop improvement, use of GE technologies.

Written by Gurdev S. Khush | Published:July 6, 2016 12:47 am
National Commission on Farmers, NCF, indian farmers, minimum support prices, MSP for crops, indian farmer MSP, kharif season, Swaminathan formula, Swaminathan report, Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, india news Budget 2016 contained significant additional allocation of funds for agriculture and rural sector development.

Global population was around 1.6 billion in 1900 — today it is around 7.2 billion and growing. Recent estimates on population growth predict a global population of 9.6 billion in 2050 and 10.9 billion in 2100. Unlike Europe and North America, where only three to four per cent of the population is engaged in agriculture, around 47 per cent of India’s population is dependent upon agriculture. Even if India continues to do well in the services sector and the manufacturing sector picks up, it is expected that around 2030 when India overtakes China as the world’s most populated country, nearly 42 per cent of India’s population will still be predominantly dependent on agriculture. The prosperity of this sector is therefore of critical importance to India.

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Budget 2016 contained significant additional allocation of funds for agriculture and rural sector development. An explicit desire has been projected to double farmers’ incomes by 2020, and areas identified for investments such as irrigation, soil health, rural connectivity and better terms for crop insurance. However, a major area of intervention — more productive varieties of food crops — has not been included. In order to meet the challenge of doubling farmers’ income, we need low-input, high-output agriculture. Achieving this goal will require incisive policy decisions for improved farm level management and use of science and technology for crop improvement. This area has been neglected and farmers still use crop varieties which require chemical protection against diseases and insects.

India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, said “everything can wait but not agriculture”. Independent India invested heavily in dams, both for power generation and for bringing large areas under irrigation. This had a positive impact on food production. But by the 1960s India faced a serious deficit of food grains. The situation was saved by the introduction of more productive dwarf varieties of wheat and rice which brought about the “Green Revolution” in Asia.

Dwarf wheat and rice were bred by the international research institutes — the CIMMYT in Mexico and IRRI in Philippines, respectively. After completing my doctoral degree and postdoctoral work at the University of California, Davis, I joined the IRRI in Philippines in 1967 as a rice breeder. There, I headed the rice breeding programme for 35 years and evolved more than 300 high yielding varieties of rice. These varieties have excellent grain quality and are resistant to several diseases and insects. One of the varieties, IR 36, became the most widely grown crop variety during the 1970s and 1980s. It was grown on 25 million acres of rice land worldwide. No other variety of rice or any other food crop has been grown that widely. IR 64 has all the desirable features of IR 36 but in addition has very palatable grain quality. It replaced IR 36 during the 1990s and beyond. Numerous parents were used for developing these varieties. Rice breeding at the IRRI and wheat breeding by Noble Laureate Norman Borlaug was carried with public support and plant breeding products were shared freely.

Meanwhile, breakthroughs in molecular biology and biotechnology have led to the development of new techniques for crop improvement such as molecular marker assisted selection (MAS) and genetic engineering (GE). These technologies have made a huge impact on crop improvement. Genetic engineering, particularly, has made it possible to meet breeding objectives that were not possible to meet through conventional breeding methods. GE crops are now grown in 28 countries. In 2015 the area planted to GE crops reached 180 million hectares. Unfortunately, there are concerns amongst the general public about the safety of foods produced through genetic engineering. Foods produced through GE technologies have been consumed for the last 15 years and no adverse effects on human health have been detected. Scientific academies of the UK, France and US have declared that GE foods are safe to eat.

In 1996, when I was at the IRRI, I received a letter from Verghese Kurien, then chairman of the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB), whose work with dairy cooperatives to enhance milk production is one of the major success stories of independent India. He requested me to appraise a proposal from the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants, University of Delhi, for breeding of oilseed mustard for higher yields. At that time, the country had made impressive productivity gains in cereal grain production but little progress had been made in improving the yield potential of oilseeds and legumes. I strongly recommended that the project be supported financially.

Over the years, I have been visiting the research fields of the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants at the University of Delhi to interact with the scientists working on mustard breeding. Their focus has been on the development of hybrids for higher yield potential and better quality of oil and meal. Another area of focus has been breeding for resistance to diseases so that the crop can be grown without chemical protection. The research group has employed conventional as well as GE approaches. Their work is an excellent example of low-input, high-output agriculture. The first mustard hybrid based on a GE method of pollination control was developed in 2002. In many replicated trials, it has outperformed true breeding varieties by as much as 20 per cent. Unfortunately, up to now, it is still awaiting biosafety clearance and cannot be planted for commercial production. For a country which imported around Rs 65,000 crore worth of edible oils in 2015, it is an awful loss of opportunity. The GE technology used by Delhi University scientists for developing mustard hybrid is the same as used for producing hybrids in rapeseed, a sister crop of mustard. Rapeseed hybrids have been grown in Canada since 1996 and after that in the US and Australia. Millions of tons of rapeseed oil and meal have been consumed around the world. No harmful effects have ever been reported or published. In spite of this evidence from rapeseed hybrids, University of Delhi scientists have conducted extensive biosafety studies with transgenic mustard hybrid with support from the Department of Biotechnology.

Release of the first transgenic mustard hybrid has been delayed by almost 10-12 years. The case of this hybrid is currently being reviewed by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) in the ministry of environment and forests for commercial release. Anti-GE activists may filibuster the proceedings of the GEAC and may even approach the courts for a stay order. In view of the importance of S&T in increasing crop productivity, it is hoped that the decisions taken by the GEAC will be based on scientific evidence and the final release will not be postponed. We must continue to use new breakthroughs in science and technology for achieving the goal of low-input, high-output agriculture which is a pre-requisite for doubling farmers’ income.

The writer is a World Food Prize Laureate and a Fellow of Royal Society (FRS) and US National Academy of Sciences

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