The Centre’s outlay for agricultural research and education last year was a little over $1 billion or Rs 8,000 cr compared to the $2.8 billion R and D investment of Bayer Crop Science.
Among the priority areas in agriculture that the Budget should focus on is research and development. The outlay should be substantial and dedicated to raising the production of those commodities India is short of. This can be done by breeding varieties that are high-yielding or resistant to pests, pathogens and weather stress so that yield losses can be reduced. The Centre’s outlay for agricultural research and education last year was a little over $1 billion or Rs 8,000 cr compared to the $2.8 billion R and D investment of Bayer Crop Science.
The crops whose output we need to increase are pulses and oilseeds. We also need to produce more of maize, a feed crop, as the consumption of animal proteins tends to increase with prosperity. Grown in the place of rice, it can save groundwater which is getting depleted in states like Punjab.
Spotlight on cropping patterns
The protracted farmers’ agitation on the borders of Delhi has put the spotlight on cropping patterns that can profit farmers, satisfy consumer demand and not harm the environment. The farmers want the government to legally undertake to buy the wheat and rice they produce at pre-fixed prices. The government is hesitant because we produce more wheat and rice than needed. If these cannot be sold internationally, stocks will accumulate and will have to be disposed of at a loss. At the price which the government pays farmers, Indian wheat is costlier by about $10-15 per tonne compared to that of Australia, Russia and the United States.
The alternative is for farmers to diversify. India imports about 15 million tonnes of edible oil annually and spends about $10 billion on it. About 45 percent of this is palm oil. Oil palm has the highest oil productivity — about four tonnes per hectare. India has been trying to promote its cultivation on the east coast and in the northeast but has not made much headway. Mustard comes a distant second in oil yield. With an oil content of about 40 percent and average mustard seed yield of 1,200 kg, a hectare of mustard could yield about 500 kg of oil. Unlike palm oil which is used by institutions, mustard is preferred in most Indian homes.
Punjab and Haryana farmers, however, will not shift from a ‘no-worry’ crop like wheat with stable high yields and assured purchases at pre-fixed prices unless mustard becomes as profitable. For that, yields must improve. Mustard is a largely self-pollinated plant and creating hybrids through conventional breeding is difficult. The mustard (or rapeseed) oil-exporting nations grow genetically-modified (GM) hybrids. Canada’s rapeseed productivity is 2.39 tonnes per hectare.
A Delhi University team led by its former vice-chancellor Deepak Pental has developed a GM mustard hybrid called DMH-11. The regulator recommended it for commercial release in May 2017 but the government has ignored the advice for ideological reasons. Pental says DMH-11 is about 20-30 percent higher yielding than conventional best varieties. His technique can be used to create other hybrids with higher yields or resistant to pests and pathogens using parental lines with appropriate traits.
Farmers need buyback assurance
In 2017, the Solvent Extractors Association (SEA), which represents oil producers, launched ‘Mission Mustard.’ It wanted a quarter of Punjab and Haryana’s wheat area to shift to mustard. It did not meet with success. Farmers will shift out of wheat if they get a variety like DMH-11. They will need buyback assurance as well. The government can procure the mustard at prices declared in advance. The oil produced from the procured mustard can be distributed through ration shops.
As for pulses, the output has vastly increased during the last decade but is still short of demand. Unlike chickpea or chana, not many countries produce the pulses we prefer like pigeon pea or tur, mung bean and black gram.
Chickpea was a winter crop grown in northwest India but Green Revolution crops — wheat and rice — displaced it. Through intensive research, it was adapted to the warm climate of central and south India where winters are short and not as cold. Madhya Pradesh is now the largest producer, while it is hardly grown in Punjab.
Last year, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropic ICRISAT-the Hyderabad-based international research institute for dryland crops and Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) released a variety of chickpea which is not only high-yielding but also resistant to a fungal disease.
The sequencing of the chickpea genome allowed the scientists to home in on genes with the traits of interest from the legume’s 28,000 genes. They chose plants from their collections that best expressed those traits and produced crosses in half the time it would have otherwise taken. Genomics-assisted breeding is fast-forwarded conventional breeding made possible by detailed genetic information of a crop and access to a bank of plant varieties with various traits.
Finalise regulations for genome editing
Conventional or genomics-assisted breeding cannot make pigeon pea, chickpea or soybean resistant to borers. These need GM technology. This has been used in cotton to make it resistant to worms that bore into bolls. More than 90 percent of India’s cotton has this technology. In October 2019, the US Food and Drug Administration approved gossypol-free cottonseed produced with gene-silencing RNAi technology.
Gossypol is a toxic chemical that makes cottonseed inedible for humans and animals but helps the cotton plant ward off insects. The genome-edited cottonseed, developed by Texas A&M University scientists, tastes like chickpea or chana, Reuters reported quoting Keerti Rathore, a plant biotechnologist at the university.
The public is squeamish about GM technology because it involves the transfer of genetic traits from other species. It should have no qualms about genome editing which can be used to create plants with traits akin to those derived from conventional breeding but with the undesirable traits excised out or silenced. The environment ministry published the draft regulations for genome editing in January 2020. They have not yet been finalised.
With a properly funded research programme, India should map the genomes of crops that are of interest to it. It should train scientists in the new techniques. Above all, it should be agnostic about technology. Where conventional or genomics-assisted breeding cannot solve problems, genome editing or genetic modification technology should be permitted. Polices should be based on evidence and not prejudice. And scientists should be accountable for time-bound outcomes.
The author is a senior journalist
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