Driving a 2nd green revolution via agri-biotech
Encouraging GM crops is a sure shot to doubling farmers’ incomes and relieving rural distress
Indian agriculture has come a long way since the country saw the Green Revolution in the late Sixties, which saved the country from food shortages and severe farming distress. The science behind the revolution is what made all the difference. Today, India is once again at the cross-roads, though it’s on a much stronger wicket than it was five decades ago.
India is today a leading producer of a variety of crops. They include rice, wheat, cotton, sugarcane and an impressive list of fruits and vegetables. But, in terms of yield or output per unit of land, we lag behind countries that are major cultivators of food crops.
A variety of reasons affect crop yields include climate conditions, access to high-quality farm inputs, mechanisation, access to capital and a good knowledge of the latest farming techniques. But, none of these will mean much if the seeds that go into our lands are not of the best quality or do not have resistance to many of the pests and diseases. Agri-biotech can privide a solution to this challenge. The most popular and commonly-sold product is the genetically modified seeds. These crops are resistant to several common pests and diseases. They also help in producing high quality yield that ultimately lead to better prices.
Simply put, transgenic or GM seeds are nothing but seeds which have some attributes added by introducing genes extracted from another species. There are any number of attributes that can be added to a seed to improve its taste, colour, quality, nutrition value and perhaps, most importantly, make them resistant to common diseases or ward off pests such as the bollworm that attack the cotton plants. Another critical need for future – climate resilient crops – could also be attempted through GM technology.
Benefits of GM tech
In India the benefits of GM technology were almost immediate and, very impressive. Ever since we opened our farm sector to the genetically-modified cotton (Bt Cotton) more recently, the country emerged as one of the major producers of this cash crop and in less than four or five years, became a net exporter. The benefits enjoyed by the cotton farmers have not spread to other crops. This challenge is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that a major part of China’s maize imports come from the North and South American countries. Meanwhile, as China’s next-door neighbour, India is unable to profit from these opportunities or have a competitive price because of the current levels of productivity.
So, what is holding us back from investing more in agri-biotech and emerge as a world leader in agriculture? Indian agriculture is not averse to science, if that were true, we wouldn’t be enjoying the fruits of the Green Revolution today. Saying we have not kept pace with the adoption of science in agriculture would be closer to the truth. For instance, gene edited crops have shown great promise and are being cultivated in other parts of the world for benefits like quality of produce. This tool provides a route to improve crop attributes by minor modifications to the native genome without introducing any genetic material from another species.
Encouraging home-grown technologies as well and support them with the necessary regulatory steps without any compromise on the science and safety is vital for ‘Doubling farmers’ income’. Technology development investments can also be encouraged by having a good mechanism to capture the value of the investment. This will further motivate all technology developers to take interest in crops that are relevant to India and using technologies for which there is a clear regulatory framework.
GM crop technologies undergo several years of testing for their trait efficacy, safety and overall performance enhancement of the crop and the testing regime is better than how conventionally developed varieties as well as products of mutation breeding. We should have faith in all the good science in place for evaluating these technologies and what emerges as safe and good for the crop should be made available to the farming community. Farmers should be allowed to choose what is best for them.
Unless the farmers stand to gain in the long run, nobody wins. This is undoubtedly one objective that can bring all stakeholders, including regulators, farmers’ lobby, activists and investors closer to create an atmosphere of trust.