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The Possibilities of Biotechnology

Biotechnology can help improve agriculture and the economy of both Karnataka and India

Deccan Herald
By CS Prakash
December 13, 2004

Agriculture forms the backbone of Karnataka’s economy, employing much of its population. Modern scientific approaches to improve agriculture can help revitalise farming in our state by enhancing crop productivity; cut down the use of chemical inputs on the farm; empower our crop plants to be more tolerant to stress such as drought and salinity; develop new value-added products; improve the nutritive value of food; enhance the profitability of farming; and thus overall, improve the quality of life for both farmers and consumers in this state. Biotechnology is clearly the most revolutionary tool to impact agricultural research since the discovery of genetics by Mendel.

Many of the important crops in Karnataka have diseases and pests that are taking away much of the harvest. Examples include: dieback disease of the pepper, leaf curl virus on tomato, blast of rice and ragi; bunchy top of banana and borers on avare.

Little ammunition

Conventional plant breeding has little ammunition to deal with these problems in an expedient and effective manner. These problems can be significantly minimised in an ecologically-friendly manner with the development of genetically reprogrammed seeds designed to resist these disease attacks, while minimising or even eliminating costly and hazardous pesticide sprays.

With no more arable land available for agricultural expansion in Karnataka, enhancing stress tolerance in crop plants will permit productive farming on currently unproductive lands. Abiotic factors such as drought, heat, cold, soil salinity and acidity cripple our crops seriously constraining their growth and yield. One could extend the growing season of crops and minimise losses due to environmental factors. The shelf life of fruits and vegetables can be prolonged to minimise losses due to food spoilage, expand the market opportunities for farmers and also improve food quality.

There has been much human misery caused by hazardous substances in many of our food crops — such as the presence of toxins in sorghum, cyanide in tapioca, aflatoxins in groundnut and antimetabolites in chickpea, horsegram and sweet potato. Biotechnology has the capability to ‘silence’ these undesirable traits and thus improve the quality of these ‘humble’ food crops so critical to the nutrition of disadvantaged and resource-poor consumers.

Prolonged ‘vase life’ of cut-flowers will help broaden the market for horticulturists, while reducing losses and minimising their dependency on expensive cold storage. Human and livestock health can be improved through crops with enhanced nutritional quality traits such as iron-rich rice and vitamin A-rich groundnut oil, and through the production of edible vaccines and other pharmaceutical proteins. Crops with industrial applications such as those producing enzymes, ‘designer’ starch and oils, biodegradable plastics and industrial chemicals can also be developed to reinvigorate the Karnataka economy and create jobs. Crop plants that can clean up soil, water and air through ‘phytoremediation’ can be developed and planted in critical areas. Trees that grow faster with fewer disease and pest problems can be developed with positive impacts both on the rural economy and the environment.

Not futuristic

Many of these developments in agricultural biotechnology sound like ‘science fiction’ but they are not futuristic! They are already a commercial reality or in the developmental phase in the West. They have great relevance in improving the quality of life in Karnataka and India. The strategic integration of biotechnology tools into our agricultural research can revolutionise our farming. Compared to the “green revolution”, the “gene revolution” is relatively scale neutral, benefiting big and small farmers alike. It is also environment friendly.

Thus, it can be of great help to the smallest farmer with limited resources, in increasing farm productivity through the availability of improved but powerful seed. It is, however, critical that public institutions such as UAS (both Bangalore and Dharwad), IISc, Seribiotech, IIHR and Bangalore University be strengthened in biotechnology research as much of the targeted research on food crops can come from public sector research.

While most scientists and policy-makers recognise that biotechnology is not a panacea for all agricultural problems in India, it is the single most powerful tool India has right now to address this problem that can work in synergy with other agricultural approaches. Dozens of scientific societies including the Indian National Science Academy have declared that biotechnology is a safe means of improving food production. India has an excellent regulatory system to ensure that biotechnology-derived products are safe for human use and for the environment. Thus, it is important that Karnataka moves ahead in integrating biotechnology briskly into its agricultural research programme and to make use of this science to advance the quality of life of its people.