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Agriculture research: Feeling India’s pulse the right way

The impression of Indian farm scientists not doing enough for legumes is misconceived.

Written by Narendra Pratap Singh |
November 5, 2015 1:11:14 am

It is generally believed that our agricultural scientists have done little in pulses breeding and research, proof of which lies in the country’s production not keeping pace with growing demand.

Thus, between 1955-56 and 2005-06, India’s pulses output hardly rose from 11.04 million tonnes (mt) to 13.38 mt. Although it did increase subsequently to 19.25 mt in 2013-14, so too have imports, touching a record 4.58 mt worth $2.79 billion in 2014-15. With back-to-back monsoon failures impacting production and leading to skyrocketing prices, pulses imports may go up further this year.

It would be incorrect, though, to blame all this on lack of research in developing high-yielding or pest, disease and drought-resistant varieties. One shouldn’t forget a simple fact here: Pulses are largely cultivated in drylands under rainfed conditions, often on marginal soils deficient in important nutrients like sulphur, zinc and molybdenum. Also, with the spread of irrigation, even areas previously growing pulses have switched to other crops, including wheat, paddy and sugarcane. In one sense, it is a wonder how India’s pulses production has not fallen despite these factors, while actually increasing significantly in the recent period.

A major contribution of our national agricultural research system has been in breeding short-duration pulses varieties.

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Take chana or chickpea, where the traditional varieties grown in the Indo-Gangetic plains were of 140-150 days duration.

Today, there are 100-110 days high-yielding varieties maturing towards end-January or early-February. These are also photo-thermo insensitive, i.e. tolerant to terminal heat and drought at the reproductive stage, making them amenable for cultivation even in southern India. A number of such varieties like JG 11, KAK 2, JAKI 9218 and MNK 1 have been developed for Andhra Pradesh; ICCV 37, JAKI 9218, JG 63, JG 11, MNK 1 and Phule G 0517 for Karnataka; and JG 11 and CO 4 for Tamil Nadu. They have not just helped expand chana cultivation acreage in the warmer southern environments, but also compensated for the 2-2.5 million hectare area in the Indo-Gangetic plains that has moved to wheat and rice because of access to irrigation. The jump in India’s chana production from 5.6 mt in 2005-06 to 9.53 mt in 2013-14 is no less a result of technology.

Equally significant has been the breeding of kabuli varieties of chana. Earlier, these large-seeded chickpeas, of 9-10 mm diameter and also called ‘dollar chana’, were being imported from Turkey, Mexico and Iran. But with the development of kabuli chana varieties such as KAK 2, MNK 1, PVK 1 and Phule G 0517, India is today annually exporting about 50,000 tonnes of such chickpea!

Similar credit can be taken for breeding of short-duration varieties in mungbean (green gram). Traditionally grown mung was of 70-80 days duration. This has come down to 60 days in Samrat, IPM 02-3, IPM 2-14, HUM 16 and SML 668 — varieties that farmers are planting during spring/summer after harvesting wheat, potato and rapeseed-mustard in Punjab, Haryana and parts of Rajasthan, western Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Availability of short-duration mung has helped in rice-wheat system diversification, besides increasing cropping intensity. We have varieties currently under various stages of evaluation like IPM 205-7 and IPM 409-4, which can mature in just 52-55 days and may be commercially released in the next couple of years.

Likewise, in arhar (tur or pigeonpea), too, the area lost from traditional 300-day varieties mainly grown in northern India has been offset by coverage under 150-160 day varieties. Such short-duration varieties have, moreover, been bred for different areas: GAUT 001E and GTH 1 for Gujarat; BDN 708, Vipula, BDN 711, TAT 9629 and Phule T 0012 for Maharashtra; CORG 9701 for Tamil Nadu; NDA 98-1, MAL 13, NDA 99-6 and IPA 203 for UP; BRG 1 and BRG 2 for Karnataka; WRG 53 and WRG 65 for AP; and TT 401, TJT 501 and JKM 189 for MP. There is even a 120-day UPAS 120 arhar that gives 8-10 quintals per hectare, as against 12-15 quintals from 300-day varieties.

In short, commendable research work has been done in breeding short-duration varieties that fit well into different pulses-based cropping systems, apart from being resistant to diseases such as fusarium wilt fungus and sterility mosaic virus.

We need to now also tap new technologies, including genetic modification, which can help confer resistance against insect pests. For example, Assam Agricultural University, Jorhat has developed a chickpea variety containing a Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene in collaboration with Sungro Seeds Ltd, a private player. The resultant Bt chana — resistant to the legume pod borer, a major pest affecting the crop — has been found to give up to 25 per cent extra yield. Similar efforts are ongoing at the Indian Institute of Pulses Research, Kanpur and ICRISAT near Hyderabad to develop transgenic pigeonpea and chickpea for resistance against polyphagous insects, which feed on a variety of crops and are difficult to control through normal pest management practices.

It is not lack of research as much as policy support — including a favourable regulatory environment for new technologies – that is presently missing in pulses. Farmers also need to be incentivised through proper minimum support price (MSP) and procurement support to grow more pulses. While fixing MSPs, the government should additionally factor in the benefits from pulses cultivation, including rejuvenation of the soil and ‘fixing’ of 40-70 kg of atmospheric nitrogen per hectare.

(The writer is Director, Indian Institute of Pulses Research, Kanpur)

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