India has the fourth largest area planted under genetically modified (GM) crops, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA).
Farmers in India planted a total 11.6 million hectares (mh) under transgenics in 2014, behind the corresponding areas for Argentina (24.3 mh), Brazil (42.2 mh) and the US (73.1 mh). The GM crop acreage in India far surpassed China’s 3.9 mh, while equalling that of Canada’s 11.6 mh.
ISAAA, a New York-based crop biotech advocacy group, has estimated the total global area under GM crops to have touched 181.5 mh last year, up from 175.2 mh in 2013.
Since 1996, when farmers first commercially planted transgenics, the area under these crops has risen more than hundredfold from 1.7 mh to 181.5 mh. It represents the fastest ever adoption of any technology in agriculture, said Bhagirath Choudhary, Director at ISAAA’s South Asia Office.
Significantly, the entire 11.57 mh GM crop area in India last year consisted of Bt cotton. Nearly 96 per cent of the country’s cotton area is now covered by Bt hybrids. Bt technology has helped India to treble its cotton output from 13 million bales in 2002 (when it was introduced) to 40 million bales in 2014.
“Last year, we achieved a historical milestone, overtaking China as the world’s No. 1 producer,” C D Mayee, a former director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur, who is currently on ISAAA’s board of directors, said.
While India’s GM crop acreage is wholly dominated by Bt cotton — much of it based on the US life sciences giant Monsanto’s proprietary “Bollgard” technology — this is not the case with other major countries.
For example, the US’s 73.1 mh GM crop area covered by maize (34.5 mh), soyabean (32.3 mh), cotton (4.3 mh), canola (685,000 hectares), sugar beet (479,000 hectares), and the rest by alfalfa, squash and papaya. Brazil’s 42.2 mh included 29.1 mh, 12.5 mh and 0.6 mh under soyabean, maize and cotton respectively.
China had only 3.9 mh of GM planted area last year — almost fully under Bt cotton. But its government has allowed commercial cultivation of seven other crops — papaya, maize, rice, poplar, tomato, sweet pepper and petunia.
Unlike India, where Monsanto enjoys a near monopoly, China’s GM crops have been developed largely by public sector research bodies such as the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (Bt cotton), Huazhong Agricultural University (rice and tomato), Beijing University (tomato and sweet pepper) and Research Institute of Forestry (poplar).
Moreover, China has sought to actively promote public-private-partnerships (PPP) in GM crop technology. For example, CAAS has licenced its internally developed Bt gene and transgenic phytase maize (which boosts phosphorous absorption by pigs, leading to faster animal growth and higher meat yields) technologies to Origin Agritech, a Beijing-based and US NASDAQ-listed seed company.
“We need to extend GM technology to more crops, and also encourage PPPs, so that our farmers benefit from competition and faster commercialisation,” Choudhary said. He pointed to the granting of the rights for commercialisation of a Bt chickpea developed by the Assam Agriculture University to Sungro Seeds and that of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute’s Bt brinjal to Bejo Sheetal and Ankur Seeds as models for the future. “Now that the Maharashtra government has taken the lead in allowing open field trials of five new GM crops, we hope to see more farmers adopting this technology in the coming years”, Mayee added.