NEW DELHI: “The new technologies have opened up doors and we should use these to be able to produce food needed by 8.2 billion people in future,” said Nobel Laureate Norman Earnest Borlaug, adding that “good public sector supported programs in biotechnology, linked with genetics and breeding are called for.”

The words of the “father of the green revolution” uttered in New Delhi in March 2009 are proving prophetic. As India is half way in realising its national mission of doubling farmers’ incomes by 2022, agriculture biotechnology seems to be emerging as a great enabler in unfolding another green revolution, transforming its distressed fields into a farming paradise.

A high-powered working group constituted under the aegis of the Union Government’s Department of Biotechnology has, in its strategy document dated July 2019 and titled “Agriculture Biotechnology for Human Welfare”, sought a robust, time bound, flexible and transparent regulatory system for harnessing agro-biotechnology for injecting new life in India’s farmlands.

They are pressing for a strong policy framework for development and commercial release of agro-biotech products. The government’s support in adopting various genome technologies and genetic modifications including gene editing would, besides contributing greatly to the national food and nutrition security, also enhance farm incomes significantly, the report emphasises. They have also prevailed on the powers-that-be to modify appropriately the long pending Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill.

Emerging technologies like gene editing have immense capacity to address the various challenges in the agriculture and allied sectors. India should, therefore, chart out a well-defined and actionable roadmap urgently for harnessing the potential of these biotechnologies to arrest the growing distress in its farm sector, the report recommends unequivocally.

The committee has provided a complete action plan for employing cutting-edge biotechnology research for agriculture development in the country in alignment with the Union Government’s National Mission on doubling of the farmers’ income by 2022, among other things. The 13-member working group under the chairmanship of Prof G. Padmanaban, President, National Academy of Sciences India (NASI), Prayagraj and Dr Manju Sharma, former Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, as its co-chair, was entrusted with the task of developing a plan for the application of agricultural biotechnology to bring about transformative changes in the agro sector.

Some of their other recommendations include:

* Introduction of Bt genes, which are already used the world over, in India;

* Release of genetically modified crops that have cleared all the safety tests for commercial use or for large scale field trials in partnership with different states;

* Establishment of beneficial international collaborations including access and acquisition of IPR-protected technologies in the areas of genome editing, genetic modification, marker assisted selection (MAS) and breeding for post-harvest losses;

* Efforts to disseminate correct information about new technologies to the public to dispel myths.

The Green Revolution and subsequent agricultural interventions have helped India achieve and maintain self-sufficiency in food grains from the early 1970s. Not only have these interventions enabled food security to the country’s 1.3 billion people—India logged in a record production of 285 million tonnes of food grains in 2018-19—but also earned the country a whopping RS 235,000 crore in agro exports in 2017-18.

Despite this progress, however, India’s productivity in recent years has been growing at a slower pace as compared to its competitors. For instance, while Brazil’s yields for rice increased from 1.3 tonnes/ha in 1981 to almost 5 tonnes in 2011 and China’s yield grew from 4.3 tonnes/ha to almost 7 tonnes, India registered a growth of only 1.6 tonnes ha (from 2 tonnes/ ha to 3.6 tonnes) during the same period.

While India contributes 25% to the world’s pulse production, 22% to rice production and 13% to wheat production, its agro yield (quantity of a crop produced per unit of land) is lower in the case of most crops as compared to China, Brazil and US.

The productivity is expected to slump further on account of many challenges that the country is facing today. Decreased availability of arable land and fast depleting other natural resources like water, deteriorating soil quality following long-term, indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and the impending dangers of climate change may well reduce farm incomes further by 15% to 18% in irrigated areas and by almost 20% to 25% in rain fed areas. Labour issues too may surface in future, as the younger generation wants to opt out of farming as it is no longer perceived as an attractive proposition. Rising cultivation costs have impacted the profitability of the sector adversely.

Now this should surely set the alarm bells ringing. By the turn of 2050, India’s population will touch an estimated 1.66 billion. The country will then have to produce an additional 400 million tonnes of food items to feed the burgeoning population. Agriculture will have to grow at least by 4% per annum to meet with the growing demand for food, feed, fodder, and healthcare products.

Even today, agriculture is the primary sector that enhances the living standards of close to 70% of India’s population, especially those living in rural and marginal areas, while contributing approximately 20% to the GDP. The sector still provides livelihood to approximately 60% of the population. A strong and effective agricultural system, therefore, is pivotal to the overall economic growth of the country. Opportunities provided by the gene and genome revolution and technologies enabled by these advances can certainly help the country to tide over the difficult situations. Hence the research in agriculture technology needs to be significantly stepped up to develop crop varieties and cropping techniques which are more resistant to vagaries of weather, the report observes.

India’s romance with agriculture biotechnology is not a new story. Jointly developed by Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) and Indian Agricultural Research Institute (AARI), India’s Pusa Basmati rice, which was released for commercial cultivation in 2003, took the world by storm. Owing to its exceptional attributes—extra-long slender milled grains, pleasant aroma, exceptionally high cooked kernel ratio and volume expansion of more than four times, appealing taste and easy digestibility—it set new standards in the international Basmati rice market.

Currently grown in 70% of the area under Basmati cultivation, this variety resulted in reduction of growth duration from 160 to 145 days and doubled yield from 2.5 tonnes/ha to 5 tonnes. It earned the country Rs 25,000 crore/annum by way of exports. Pusa brought prosperity to millions of Basmati farmers, whose earning in 2017 was on an average US$1,400/ha as against US$650/ha of those cultivating traditional Basmati.

Similarly, the improved Samba Mahsuri variety, developed through MAS (a technique, which aids in faster and easier selections of plant traits), and cultivated over 130,000 ha during the five years from 2011-2016, gave an economic return of Rs 1,250 crore. During Kharif of 2018 alone, the area under Samba rice cultivation was 100,000 ha. The flood tolerant Swarna-Sub, another rice variety, also developed through MAS, has been cultivated over an estimated one million ha earning good money for its growers.

Pest resistant transgenic Bt-cotton is another scintillating example. Over 90% of the farmers earned rich dividend by cultivating this variety. The new cotton that was grown on 11.4 Million Hectares, resulted in an increase in production by 9.25% and reduction in use of pesticides by 82%. The average net returns increased by 375% (from the pre-Bt period).

While it is under indefinite moratorium in India since 2010, the Bt-Brinjol—the country’s first genetically modified crop for mass production is reaping rich harvest for over 27,000 farmers in the neighbouring Bangladesh. India has also developed early flowering transgenic Brassica (GM Mustard) with a potential to develop new hybrids with improved oil quality and quantity. This variety is yet to obtain a green signal for commercial release. Transgenic bananas enriched in pro-Vitamin A, a technology acquired from Australia, have been successfully developed through gene editing and are currently undergoing lab tests.

Despite such significant scientific strides, India still remains extremely restrictive where agro biotech is concerned, the report rues. It is not a happy situation as the scientific communities, potential investors, and development partners are not enthusiastic about doing research to develop new products. Therefore, there is a pressing need for strong government support to encourage modern biotechnological interventions in agriculture to improve the quality, productivity, and income of the farming systems in a safe and sustainable manner, the report adds.