Science and technology hold the key to developing low-input, high-output agriculture. The challenge is to use new technologies creatively and to make evidence-based decisions on the deployment of new technologies. Crop breeding is carried out to meet two broad objectives: one, to increase yields of a crop per se and, two, to protect the yield potential by developing crops resistant to diseases, pests and environmental extremes.
Both yield-enhancement and yield-stabilisation are critical for feeding a global population of over seven billion, and still increasing, and for meeting current and emerging challenges of sustainable development.
India needs a second green revolution: one that is based on low-input, high-output agriculture, frugal use of natural resources and diversification of agricultural activities. Deceleration in crop productivity and agricultural growth since the 1990s should be a major national concern.
India has a serious deficit of edible oils and grain legumes; around 50% of our edible oil requirements are being met through imports. Our farmers are toiling hard on the land, but not reaping enough benefits due to low productivity of our crops.
Increase in crop productivity can only occur if we use the best and the latest that science and technology have to offer and intensify our national efforts in research and development. Since the 1990s, two new techniques have been added to the repertoire of plant breeding: one, marker-assisted breeding and, two, development of transgenic crops.
Both the techniques allow more precise genetic modification of crops. The implication of transgenic technologies is more dramatic as these allow a gene from any biological source to be introduced into a crop. Opponents of transgenic technology want a ban on the use of crops with transgenic traits. This is an irrational, anti-science and anti-development view.
A number of myths and lies are being propagated about transgenic technologies. One great myth is that genetic modification of crops only started with the transgenic technologies, otherwise, every crop existed in the pristine form in which it was domesticated. Hence the name GM crops.
Nothing can be farther from truth. Genetic modification of crops for human use is going on since their domestication. All the food that reaches our tables is derived from crops that have undergone extensive genetic modification. To illustrate the point, let me site the history of one of our major staple crops: wheat. The first archaeological evidence of domestication of wheat comes from south-west Asia, in an area called the Fertile Crescent, around 11,000 years ago.
The first domesticated wheats - that are grown even today - were pasta-type that arose in nature from a cross between two distinct grass species. As human beings migrated with their pasta wheat towards south Asia, the tetraploid wheat picked up the genome of another wild grass species that grew on the southern face of the Caspian Sea, giving rise to the modern bread wheat.
Thus, massive genetic modification occurred in the evolution of bread wheat with genes contributed by three grass species.
The list of genetic modifications wheat has undergone since its origin and domestication is too long to be described here, but some recent landmark genetic modifications need to be mentioned. At the end of World War II, the agricultural adviser to the US Occupation Army in Japan realised that breeders in Japan had bred dwarf wheats that possess stiff stems and did not lodge easily.
These wheats, called Norins, were taken to Washington State University at Pullman. The dwarfing genes were introduced into the US spring wheats and later into wheats that were bred for Mexico by Norman Borlaug and others.
In the 1960s, when India was reeling under famine conditions and living from 'ship to mouth' through PL480 grain from the US, the political establishment in India made the critical decision to introduce dwarf wheats and later disease-resistant material in the north, ushering in the green revolution. As long as human civilisation lasts, wheat will keep on undergoing genetic modification.
The story of other crops is similar to that of wheat. All the major crops grown globally have undergone massive genetic modifications. The wild potatoes of Andes, still consumed by some highland tribes, are too full of anti-feedants and too small to be of interest to the modern-day farmer.
Without dwarf rice and massive genetic modifications of rice through the mobilisation of genes conferring resistance to pests and pathogens, much of south and east Asia will be in the grip of famines. The latest development for Africa is Nerica rices produced by combining two distinct species, Asian rice with African rice - another case of massive genetic modification.
Another big lie is that crops with transgenic traits are detrimental to human health and environment, and are contributing to human misery. Recently, many national newspapers carried news items on Bt cotton. The occasion was 10 years of Bt cotton after its official release in 2002.
Most of the headlines were, unfortunately, sensational rather than factual, giving mostly credence to the views and utterances of self-anointed activists and experts and many NGOs who are determined on spreading misinformation and fear regarding the transgenic technologies. An article written by the director of the Central Institute of Cotton research in Nagpur was dubbed as a secret government report even through it is freely available.
To quote from the article, "For more than a decade, before 2002, the American bollworm had unleashed terror in cotton fields, by destroying more than 50% of cotton yields in India." "Bt cotton changed the story in India. Yields doubled. Insecticide use was reduced to half of the previous level." The article, however, throws some valid cautionary notes: there are almost 780 hybrids in the market, some of which are susceptible to viral diseases.
There is enhanced incidence of sucking pests. Ensuring the longevity of Bt genes, as insects can develop resistance to the Bt protein, is also a major issue. These problems will surely require better management and further genetic modification of the crop.
A full-throttled attempt is being made by the anti-GM lobby to relate Bt cotton with farmer suicides. Such statements make interesting headlines but are based on distortions and are, therefore, untenable. A recent NSSO survey shows that 50% farmers are under debt. Can one believe that removal of Bt cotton from the fields will settle farmers' debt problems? Is there a credible model on how cotton farmers can be made debt-free by organic cultivation of cotton?
Another big myth - and there are many lies and fetishes woven around it - is organic farming. A recent research paper published in the May 10 issue of the world's leading science journal Nature clearly shows that to feed all the wheat consumers with a crop grown under the organic farming regimes would require 40% more land over and above what is under wheat today. From where will this land come? A more sensible approach would be to introduce benign practices without being dogmatic.
India does not have the luxury of rejecting new technologies for agricultural growth. Today, crops with transgenic traits are grown in 160 million hectares of land globally and the area will only increase. It is time we take care of misinformation-based fears by clear enunciation of policies and by conducting research in an open and transparent manner.
But the lies need to be nailed and exposed. Both the Union government and the state governments need to stay firm on conducting proper biosafety trials so that necessary data is generated for taking evidence-based judicious decisions on the release and cultivation of crops with transgenic traits. Drift will adversely impact the future of Indian agriculture.
(The author works on mustard breeding, teaches genetics and is former vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi. Views are personal)