• JUNE 25, 2001

Biotech in agriculture

Agriculture in India offers tremendous opportunities and challenges. The country is climatically favorable for cultivation of every commercially important plant species grown in other parts of the world. Though the country is among the top three producers of tea, cotton, sugar and food grains, the productivity levels are far from satisfactory. The main challenge for India is to be able to produce enough food for the increasing population. As our population continues to grow, we are fast running out of arable land and water. Based on the current trends, India’s population will jump to around 1.5-1.6 bn, before stabilizing sometime in the middle of the 21st century. The world food demand is expected to triple by the same time and production is finding hard to catch up. India has bigger threat considering that it is one of the large consumers.

Biotechnology has some answers. It is now possible to isolate genes with favorable properties, and incorporate them into the seeds directly. Apart from yield enhancements and shorter crop gestation, genetically engineered seeds are inherently pest resistant. This science is widely known as seed biotechnology, makes food a large opportunity for agri-business. The total seed market in India is estimated at US$ 500 m. However, the penetration of hybrid seeds is barely at 30% of our total crop production. Thus, opportunities are enormous given the low penetration levels. Apart from the market for genetically developed seeds, biotechnology finds application in broad spectrum of agrochemicals.

Again, while traditional plant breeding involves the crossing of hundreds or thousands of genes, plant biotechnology allows for the transfer of only one or a few desirable genes. This more precise science allows plant breeders to develop crops with specific beneficial traits and without undesirable traits. Plant biotechnology is an extension of this traditional plant breeding with one very important difference - plant biotechnology allows for the transfer of a greater variety of genetic information in a more precise, controlled manner.

Biotech can thus offer several beneficial traits to agriculture. Apart from increasing productivity it also offers other quality improvements in terms of processing advantages, such as tomatoes with higher solids content; and nutrition enhancements, such as oil seeds that produce oils with lower saturated fat content. But it is may all remain a pipe dream unless India jumps on the biotechnology bandwagon aggressively.

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