Genetic Technology- A game changer for Indian Agriculture

August 17, 2022 Gubba Seed In E News, Seed

“America produces 30 quintals of soyabean per acre and it is not above four quintals in our country! What is the benefit of agricultural universities? Union Minister Nitin Gadkari wondered in his address to agriculture professionals at the Dr CD Mayee Agriculture Expert Award ceremony held in Nagpur on July 15. Gadkari’s query points to the precarious situation of millions of farmers who face low soyabean yield and crop losses year after year, particularly in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra and neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, the ‘soy bowl of India’. All efforts to improve soyabean yield have proved unsuccessful, with the country’s productivity at a low one-third of the global average. Like in the case of wheat, rice and cotton, can genetic technology make a difference to the life of soyabean farmers and help India reduce the growing import burden of 5 million tonnes of soyabean oil and about 1.5 million tonnes of soyabean cake.
Genetic technology: An agri miracle
The Green Revolution was the turning point in the country’s stagnating food production. India has achieved a miraculous increase in food production from 50 million tonnes in the early decades of Independence to 317 million tonnes currently. Scientists harnessed genetic treasure by moving useful gene(s) into domestic cultivars of wheat and rice through the traditional methods of cross-breeding. The science of cross-breeding was further refined using the heterosis breeding technique for developing hybrid cultivars of rainfed crops such as sorghum, pearl millet, castor, cotton, sunflower and horticulture.
The first breakthrough in cotton yield was achieved when hybrid cotton technology was commercialised in India around 1973. The yield increased from a mere 125 kg lint per ha to nearly 250 kg lint per ha. Cotton output of around 12.7 million bales of 170 kg each was something to cheer about for the textile industry in the 1980s. However, the joy was shortlived as cotton production stagnated at 13-14 million bales for nearly 20 years. Cotton mills depended on import of 7-10 million bales to remain operational, despite the largest acreage under cotton cultivation. The world cotton countries nearly wrote off the perilous quality and quantity of Indian cotton. But then, there was an agri-miracle based on genetic technology in 2002 when the Vajpayee-led government allowed the use of the first insect-resistant Bt cotton, launching a new era of gene-based revolution.
The rise of Indian cotton
In India, cotton accounts for a mere 6.7 per cent of the total cultivated area, that too in just 10 of the 29 States. Yet, it grabs a big chunk of media coverage, parliamentary debates, and discussions on wide-ranging issues such as GM technology, seed price, pest outbreaks, MSP, trade, export-import and textile mill demands. This is mainly due to its significance in the national economy. The crop is also a model for the technological changes in the agriculture production systems.
The latest being the introduction of insect-resistant Bt genes for the management of the dreaded American bollworm pest. The country witnessed frequent epidemics of these pests. Farmers had no choice but to spray or pray. Between 2003 and 2013, cotton yields doubled from 300 kg lint per ha to 550 kg, import ceased with annual export of 8-12 million bales, pesticide consumption halved, and seed and textile industries flourished.
Within a decade of the release of the new technology, it was adopted by 7.7 million farmers and Bt cotton was grown on 95 per cent of the total cotton area — an outstanding achievement in the history of technology uptake and absorption despite the resistance from different groups averse to genetic technologies. Empirical evidence suggests that cultivation expanded from 7 million hectares to 12 million hectares, production jumped from 13-14 million bales to 35-36 million bales, and farmer’s profitability doubled.
Despite substantial gains in production over the last 20 years, the yield remained stuck around 550 kg lint per hectare. There is a clamour for furthering the cotton genetic technology as nothing has been commercialised since 2006 to tackle the emerging problems of weeds, pests and climate change. Farmers vow to challenge the status quo and are surreptitiously growing next-generation herbicide-tolerant and PBW-resistant cotton traits.
Hope returns for genetic technology
For the first time since the introduction of Bt cotton, the ginners, yarn manufacturers and textile industrialists, and more so the edible oil and feed manufactures have raised their voice in favour of genetic technology to increase cotton, edible oil and oil meal cake production, and improve raw material supply to processing industry. Reduced production due to pest and climate alterations, and the enhanced prices of raw material have brought to fore the need to resolve the longstanding issues of genetic technologies.
For the last many years, the country hardly made any progress in genetic technologies, which are widely accepted by major food-growing countries such as Brazil, Argentina, the US, Canada and South Africa. On the contrary, India has ignored home-grown genetic technology such as GM mustard. Meanwhile, India’s dependence on imported soyabean and canola edible oil and oil meal cake, which are anyway derived from GM sources, increased many fold. There could be a ray of hope as the end-user industry’s demand for continuous supply of affordable raw material and skyrocketed food inflation sway the policy corridors in Delhi. Minister Gadkari’s exhortation may open doors for new genetic technology in soyabean and cotton to improve raw material supply, curb food inflation, and ensure the welfare of millions of farmers.
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