At Springfields in the state of Illinois of the United States,the corn fields this year seem to be staring at a possible drought. In nearby Monmouth,field trials are on for drought-resistant corn. It will be the ninth trait after SmartStax,the genetically modified (GM) maize that has eight GM traits stacked together six for insect resistance and two for herbicide tolerance.
As food demand soars with the growing world population,the debate at the Farm Progress Show at Decatur in the US last week hinged on how many gene traits can a seed possibly possess in the times to come. Interestingly,amid the big machines that crop and harvest 1,000 to 10,000-acre US farms,the corporates were betting big on smallest amongst all that goes into farming the seed.
As per the forecast of worlds biggest agri-biotech company,Monsanto,which has invested USD 1.2 billion last year on research in GM crops in 29 countries across the globe,by 2030 its GM corn may have more than 20 gene traits.
In addition to the existing eight traits for insect resistance and herbicide tolerance,there may be a dozen other gene traits for improving yield,nitrogen use,nutritional value and next generation insect control, said the chief technology officer of Monsanto,Dr Robb Fraley at the show.
Also in the pipeline are new gene traits in other major crop,soyabean. The new products promise weed control,zero-transfats and fungal resistance besides ensuring more beans per plant and more beans per pod. The other thrust areas for the corporates are cotton and vegetables.
The case for GM was once again argued on the basis of food security challenge.
By 2011,there will be 7 billion people on the planet. But only 20 per cent of the worlds land is used to grow crops. The worlds population is growing by one per cent each year and food demand by 1.8 per cent. How do we grow all that food? The answer lies at the intersection of multiple technologies such as plant breeding,biotechnology and better agronomic practices, Dr Farley said.
The Indian scene
India is among the top five countries in terms of GM crop acreage along with the US,Brazil,Argentina,Canada and China. Indias first and only commercialised GM crop so far is Bt cotton. Monsanto is currently holding field trials for its second crop in India,GM corn,in Gujarat. The other state that allowed field trials was Haryana but sowing in the 2011 kharif season could not take place as approval came late. After trials,commercial approval will be sought.
Other than Monsanto,agriculture genetics MNCs in the regulatory process are Dow Agrosciences for insect-resistant cotton and insect-resistant corn,Bayer for insect-resistant rice,Pioneer (DuPont) and Syngenta for insect-resistant and herbicide tolerant corn. Biotech research is also underway in many crops,both in private and public sector laboratories in India.
The Indian Regulator,Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC),had in June this year cleared applications and had since directed the companies to first get a no objection certificate from respective state governments for field trials before they get a final approval.
While states like Andhra Pradesh,Gujarat and Haryana have already granted approval for field trials of many of these seeds,Karnataka,Tamil Nadu,Maharashtra,Punjab,Chhattisgarh,Madhya Pradesh,Uttar Pradesh,Rajasthan and Bihar have either denied or deferred decision on GM crops.
But the state approvals will not be required after the Biotech Regulatory Authority of India,a five-member body,comes into place. The BRAI bill,likely to be tabled in Parliament next session,is being awaited by the Association of Biotech Led Enterprises-Agriculture Group,a consortium of biotech companies as it will provide them a single window clearance. Currently,biotech companies have to get approvals from agriculture,environment and science and technology ministries.
Not in public interest
Several agriculture groups say GM crops are not in national and public interest. Currently,over 93 per cent of Bt cotton seed is controlled by Monsanto in India. We need to first address the issue whether Bt crops are needed,when non-pesticide management is already giving us good yields as witnessed in Andhra Pradesh. The argument that it cuts pesticide use has been disproved in a study conducted in Gujarat that found pesticide use going up in Bt cotton. We have to look at long-term solutions to depletion of productive resources besides addressing concerns of biodiversity and biosafety. We tried to present our views on the BRAI bill to the government in 2008 but the subsequent versions are getting worse. It is clearly aimed at making things easier for biotech companies by bulldozing resistance, says Kavitha Kuruganti,national convenor,Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture,a network of 400 farmers and consumer groups.
Karuganti argues that even at biotech hubs in US such as Illinois,farmers are facing herbicide resistance in the form of superweed. It would be foolish for India not to learn lessons, she adds.
(The writer was on a Monsanto-sponsored tour to the Farm Progress Show at Decatur,Illinois)