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BUSINESS & POLICY: Stop worrying about veggie prices: Use GE crops to increase crop yield and fight food inflation





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TITLE:   STOP WORRYING ABOUT VEGGIE PRICES: USE BIOTECH TO INCREASE CROP YIELD, FIGHT FOOD INFLATION

SOURCE:  The Economic Times, India

AUTHOR:  Nidhi Nath Srinivas

URL:     http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2011-09-11/news/30139630_1_bt-cotton-food-inflation-food-crops

DATE:    11.09.2011

SUMMARY: "That?s a reminder: biotech can increase crop yield dramatically, and fight food inflation. Farmers are ready for reform, research is peaking. Now, government has to be smart and quick. What hyper-imaginative critics of farm biotechnology call Frankenstein food, or Frankenfood, is now the handiest solution to India?s runaway food inflation. The debate on genetically modified food no longer runs along the monster or messiah lines: it clearly is a viable solution, but a lot will depend on where we go from here and how we leverage the technology."

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STOP WORRYING ABOUT VEGGIE PRICES: USE BIOTECH TO INCREASE CROP YIELD, FIGHT FOOD INFLATION

2011 marks 10 years of Bt cotton, a successful GM crop. It?s also been a year of high food inflation. That?s a reminder: biotech can increase crop yield dramatically, and fight food inflation. Farmers are ready for reform, research is peaking. Now, government has to be smart and quick.

What hyper-imaginative critics of farm biotechnology call Frankenstein food, or Frankenfood, is now the handiest solution to India?s runaway food inflation. The debate on genetically modified (GM) food no longer runs along the monster or messiah lines: it clearly is a viable solution, but a lot will depend on where we go from here and how we leverage the technology.

Consider Bt cotton and its impact on the life of Panduranga Wamanrao Iname. Back in 2001, the cotton farmer hailing from Maharashtra?s Patan taluk, near Aurangabad, was earning Rs 3,000 a month. He could not afford a pucca house or the basic conveniences of life. The problem: his crop was frequently ravaged by pests and the harvest was too small to support his family. A decade later, inflation has grown almost threefold, from 3.6% to 10%, but Iname is smiling. He owns 60 acres land, grows Bt cotton on half that area, and earns Rs 30,000 each month. He has a proper house, a tractor, and two well-educated sons.

After revolutionising India?s fibre and textiles industry, biotech is now ready for food crops such as corn, vegetables, rice, pulses and oilseeds. And there are many more Inames awaiting the second Green Revolution that biotech and GM crops have the potential to unleash. Their success, as in the case of Bt cotton, will translate into a paradigm shift for consumers. Food, especially vegetable, prices will no longer be hyper-volatile.

Focus on Food

?We will be letting go a big opportunity of meeting future food requirements if we do not make use of technologies like biotech crops,? says Raju Barwale, managing director of Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco), which pioneered Bt cotton technology in India.

In the past 30 years, the average Indian farm has shrunk 40% to reach 1.32 ha while the number of farms has risen by more than 70%. If this trend continues, the average farm will shrink to a mere 0.68 ha by 2020, and 0.32 ha in another 10 years. On the other hand, with population and incomes both on a rise, the pressure of consumer demand is unrelenting. ?On a $2 per day per capita income most people have sufficient purchasing power to escape hunger, but are not able to consume a nutritionally balanced diet. As their incomes rise from about $2 to $10 per day, people eat more meat, dairy products, fruits, vegetables and edible oils, causing rapid growth in raw agri- commodity demand,? says Robert L Thompson, visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. But, given the continuous onslaught of urbanisation on already limited land, climate change, depleted soils, and the water shortage, India?s food supply can?t keep pace without significa
 nt jump in productivity.

Biotech seeds that are effective on farms of all sizes not only promise a way out of the problem, but also make perfect sense. What?s not to like about crops infused with the ability to fight drought, heat, pests and disease along with the intelligence to use nitrogen more efficiently? Imagine the potential of herbicide-tolerant crops that allow farmers to spray their fields to kill weeds instead of the more cumbersome and expensive manual weeding (especially during monsoon). Yes, all this and more is in the pipeline. Says CD Mayee, former director of Central Institute for

Quick Guide To GM Crop Tech

The basic idea: useful genes are transferred from one organism to another. There are two methods. First, the gene gun: the chosen DNA is coated onto tiny particles of gold or tungsten. These are shot into plant cells. Some of the DNA comes off and is incorporated into the DNA of the recipient plant. Second: use a bacterium to introduce the gene(s) of interest into the recipient plant?s DNA.

Source: ISAAA

Cotton Research, who was also co-chairman of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee which regulates biotech crops in India: ?We are 100% ready for GM food crops.? Making Veggies, and Fruits, Better Vegetables have single-handedly pushed up food inflation for several months now.

So it?s not surprising that this area is seeing a lot of biotech activity. Take Bt brinjal, which can allow farmers to bring 116% more market-worthy fruit compared to conventional hybrids. This increased supply directly benefits consumers. Then there is the money farmers save on pesticide sprays. Scientists say Bt brinjal will help farmers earn an extra Rs 16,000 to Rs 20,000 per acre. That adds up to extra $400 million a year across the country.

Bt brinjal is a pressing idea on another count: scale. The vegetable currently is grown on nearly 5.5 million hectares, making India the second largest producer after China with a 26% world production share. It is an important cash crop for more than 1.4 million small and marginal farmers. But since it is prone to attack from pests and diseases ? the most destructive being the fruit and shoot borer ? farmers often are left with only 30% of the crop fit to sell. Fruit damage has also been known to go as high as 95%.

* Graphic: Very volatile vegetable prices ... and how GM can change that and much more

* see graphic: http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/photo.cms?msid=9937460

Realising the economic importance of this vegetable, Mahyco began working on a seed resistant to borers. Several other research institutions, both public and private, are also developing Bt brinjal using different genes. The government-run National Center on Plant Biotechnology has transferred its Bt brinjal technology to several companies, including Bejo Sheetal, Vibha Seeds, Nath Seeds and Krishidhan Seeds.

?Corn will be the next big biotech success like cotton,? claims Ajay Jhakhar, chairman of farmer body Bharat Krishak Samaj. Corn has become an important cash crop in India because it is used by modern industrial poultry farms and dairies to feed chicken and cows. It takes about three kilograms of corn to produce one kilo of chicken. The rising cost of feed is the single biggest reason cited by poultry companies for the frequent rise in the retail prices of chicken and eggs.

Varied Menu

Although India?s corn acreage is the fifth highest in the world at more than eight million hectares, its yields are among the lowest ? 1-4.5 tonnes a hectare, compared with about 10 tonnes on an average in the US. The introduction of biotech corn that is resistant to pests such as stem borer and can withstand herbicide sprays could dramatically raise yields from the same acreage and change the face of India?s corn-based industries, says Gyanendra Shukla, director, corporate affairs, Monsanto Holdings.

Other crops being developed include banana, cabbage, cassava, cauliflower, chickpea, rapeseed/mustard, papaya, potato, rice, tomato, watermelon and wheat. There are several new gene events in nine crops undergoing field trials for regulatory approval.

?Bt cotton has given Indian seed companies a lot of experience in how to introduce new traits and integrate traits with genetics. It will be a much faster process in other crops,? says Prabhakar Rao, chairman and managing director of Nuziveedu Seeds, India?s largest seed company. ?Almost half of the pesticides used in horticulture are sprayed on chillies, vegetables and apples. Concentrating on these crops would make a tremendous difference,? says Mayee.

Some Rice and Dal?

* Box: Anti GM Book of Tricks

* see Box: http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/photo.cms?msid=9937475

Along with a rising demand for animal protein, India is also facing rising demand for pulses. For decades India has been dependent on imports. ?In next two-three years, if there is any change in weather patterns, our yield from conventional seed will collapse,? says Mayee.

Biotech pigeon pea, or tur dal, could change that. Hyderabad-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), a non-profit, nonpolitical organisation that conducts agricultural research for development in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, for one, is developing transgenic tur dal, chick peas, and groundnut that can fight off pests, fungal attack plus be fortified with extra carotene. ?Transgenic research in particular is a new front in the battle against hunger and malnutrition, and we believe that if used properly and with caution, it offers enormous advantages particularly in the pursuit of food security and self-sufficiency,? says William D Dar, director general, ICRISAT.

Similarly, biotech golden rice, which is expected to be released next by International Rice Research Institute, could go a long way in tackling India?s chronic vitamin deficiency.

Push from the Centre

Fortunately, no one needs to convince the farmers on the promise of going the GM way. ?In this country it?s the farmer who?s the most receptive to new technology, because he is looking to make a profit. Farmers want to adopt nanotechnology though no one yet talks about it. The government should create a regulatory framework for it right away,? says Jhakhar.

And the government is listening. The apex sarkari farm research body, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, has placed its faith in first- and second-generation biotech to speed up breeding. ?Priority would be given to those commodities and traits for developing transgenics that have shown low probability of research success in the past through conventional efforts,? it says in its Vision 2030 document.

The government is also bringing in a new law that will create single window clearance for biotech crops. The Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill 2011 aims to create a regulatory authority that will take all decisions on the research, manufacture and use of organisms and products created through biotech.

Pooling Strengths

For the public sector, the biggest hurdle is the paucity of funds. India?s public sector investments in crop biotechnology R&D have been approximately $1.5 billion over the past five years, or $300 million per year: puny compared to private sector research funds. Luckily this is where public-private partnerships can work. ICRISAT and the Department of Biotechnology have established a Platform for Translational Research on Transgenic Crops that allows companies to take technology from the lab to the fields.

Anti-biotech critics, however, remain unconvinced. ?The government is not doing enough in taking other solutions to farmers. It is wrong in giving more and more space to private companies without asking whether it will help farmers and improves sustainability,? says Kavitha Kuruganti, national convenor of ASHA, an umbrella body with 400 NGOs as members.

Though some of the criticisms against Bt cotton now ring hollow after 10 years, they have helped fine-tune bio-safety protocols. ?For any biotech crop to be launched in the country, it is important that both farmers and consumers should be educated about the need of biotech crops and how it can address issues related to production, nutrition and health. We should consult them and address their concerns to have a conducive environment before the launch of any biotech crops,? says Barwale.

The Road Ahead: Cautious Optimism But while GM is a great idea, it?s important to understand that no biotech seed can be magic bullet for all the problems a farmer faces. Then again, that is not its intention. By moving slowly, trait by trait, it allows farmers and companies to assess and monitor carefully.

?It?s possible the effect of new technology on other crops may not be as dramatic as cotton but it will still be significant. Ultimately, it will result in higher yield and higher prosperity. And all stakeholders in the value chain have to gain or it won?t be a winning product,? says Paresh Verma, director, Shriram Bioseeds.

An optimistic Dar emphasises the importance of acting sooner rather than later. ?Every minute lost, every decision delayed means more people suffering from poverty and hunger. We should not let this happen? he says.

Ultimately, it is the farmer who will decide what to plant. And he is too savvy to make a mistake for more than one season. Given that Indian agriculture supports six out of every 10 Indians, in the farmers? prosperity lies the nation?s prosperity. And in their ability to choose the best seed lies the future of affordable food ? and low food prices.