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Gene Revolution and Food Security

Observer of Business and Politics
March 2, 2000
By C. S. Prakash

A revitalised Indian agriculture can be the engine of growth and biotechnology can provide the needed fuel, says C S Prakash.

India's greatest achievement in the past century has been its ability to increase its food production and thus keeping the Malthusian fears at bay. Nevertheless, we still face daunting challenge of hunger, poverty and malnutrition that will only get worse as the population increases in absolute numbers. Recent advances in crop science, however, provide us with a new window of opportunity to deal with the issue of food security. Genetic engineering is clearly the most revolutionary tool to impact agricultural research since the discovery of genetics by Mendel. Sensible integration of biotechnology in research can accelerate the pace of agricultural improvement and is of considerable relevance to an agrarian country like India.

Transforming India's agriculture is critical not only to deal with the issue of hunger and poverty but also to strengthen the sector that is so fundamental to India's existence. The 'green revolution' is showing signs of fatigue and farm productivity increases are now flattening. There are serious constraints to productivity in Indian agriculture because of small holdings, the subsistence nature of farming, vagaries of the weather, limited water, poor land condition and stress factors such as drought, heat and saline soil conditions. Much of the crop yield is lost due to disease, pests, and weeds while a considerable proportion of harvested fruits and vegetables are spoilt during transportion and storage.

There is thus an urgent need to reinvigorate agricultural research to address crop productivity issues by redesigning crop plants to benefit the farmer and the consumer, and also to develop innovative 'value-added' agricultural products to enhance the revenue base of farming. Profitable farming not only enhances the quality of life in rural India but will also help limit the urban sprawl due to migration and its attendant environmental problems. Beyond crop productivity, there is also a need to address the larger food and environmental issues.

A revitalised Indian agriculture can be the engine of growth for the 21st century, and biotechnology can provide the needed fuel. When deployed in a sensible and responsible manner, modern biotechnological tools such as genetic improvement of crops can advance India's agriculture to address 'head-on' the challenge of feeding its increasing population with its limited economic, land and water resources. India cannot afford to lag behind in critically examining these new technologies and making them available to its farmers under suitable safeguards.

Most experts say that the greatest promise of biotechnology is in its application in developing countries like India and China because of their high reliance on agriculture, large farming areas, low crop yield and the urgency for food increase and economic revitalisation. Developing countries such as Mexico, Argentina, China and Chile have already made considerable economic advances by integrating biotechnology into their agricultural programmes. Others such as Cuba, Egypt and South Africa are also following close behind and clearly see biotechnology as a means of advancing their economies in an accelerated manner. India can, therefore, ignore biotechnology only at its own peril.

Biotechnology can be a boon to Indian agriculture in may ways. Crop damage can be minimised through disease- and pest-resistant varieties while reducing the use of chemicals. Conventional plant breeding has little ammunition to deal with these problems in an expedient and effective manner. India also has serious problems of blast in rice, rust in wheat, leaf rust in coffee, viruses in tomato and chillies and leaf spot in groundnut across the country. 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.

Genetic modification can also address the problems of shoot borers in brinjal and okra, caterpillars in pappadi (Dolichos) beans, and of course, the boll wormin cotton which resulted in the tragic suicides of hundreds of cotton farmers. India is the third largest producer of cotton in the world (after China and the US). Although cotton occupies only 5 per cent of the country's land, nearly 50 per cent of all pesticide used in india is bought by cotton farmers alone at a staggering cost of Rs 16 billion annually and with incalculable impact on the environment and human health.

Development of cotton varieties with resistance to pests thus can enhance the welfare of Indian farmers, while helping both the India economy and its environment. New genome technologies along with bioinformatics will further propel Indian agriculture into a new era where complex traits such as photosynthetic efficiency and crop yield can be enhanced. Geneomic tools with esoteric names such as 'DNA Chips', 'Gene Shuffling' and 'Director Evolution' are already making an impact on biomedical research enabling the discovery of new drugs and rapid disease diagnostics, and will surely impact agricultural research.

With no more arable land available for agricultural expansion in India, 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 Indian 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 reduce losses to food spoilage, expand the market vista and improve food quality.

There has been much human misery caused by hazardous substances in many Indian food crops such as the presence of neurotoxin in kesar dal, 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-rice and vitamin A-rich rapeseed 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 Indian 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 impact both on the rural economy and the environment.

The strategic integration of biotechnology tools into Indian agricultural systems can revolutionise Indian farming and usher in a new era in the countryside. 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 can also reduce his dependency on chemical inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers. India unequivocally needs the help of such technologies to march into the next century with a vision for economic upliftment and prosperity for its two-thirds of populace dependent on farming.