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  • ICAR is open to collaborative research with agri-biotech MNCs, says Director-General Trilochan Mohapatra

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) is open to private partnerships for agri-biotech research, big data analytics and production of seeds with novel traits, says Director-General Trilochan Mohapatra.

With a total budget of less than $850 million last year, including for research, the institution which led India into the Green Revolution will be a bit player in the Gene Revolution unless it finds creative ways of collaboration and also trains its money on those projects which have the highest payback for the nation.

“Gone are the days when the public system could meet all the seed needs of the country,” Mohapatra said in an interview to this correspondent. Today, the National Seed Corporation and state seed corporations cannot supply enough because the seed replacement rates are increasing. Some farmers want to change them every year, he said.

“A second area of collaboration is GM (genetic modification) research... partnering with multinationals, if they can put in money and we can do research together to solve a particular problem.”

Early in September, the German agro-chemicals company, Bayer, announced it would spend 2.5 billion euros ($2.82 billion) to create infrastructure for innovation over the next three years. This excludes 1 billion euros ($1.13 billion) it will spend annually on R&D.

A wave of consolidation has hit agribusinesses, following the global downturn in commodity prices. Companies are trying to ride the current lean patch by cutting costs and combining strengths. Dow Chemicals and DuPont have merged, ChinaChem has acquired Syngenta, Monsanto was said to be talking to BASF for a merger of their agrichemicals businesses; now it is set to be merged with Bayer, if regulators approve.

Some might find the accumulation of corporate power troubling. Vandana Shiva, a relentless environmental activist, has written in an article that the proposed Monsanto-Bayer merger is evil. In her view, their grip on agriculture in countries like India and Brazil will tighten to the detriment of farmers and consumers.

Regulators will have to be vigilant. So long as the giants face competitive pressure, size should not be of concern.

The consolidation among MNCs in the seeds and crop protection businesses should jolt ICAR into being more active than it has been, in research and the moulding of public opinion in favour of GM technology, which Mohapatra says is “a wonderful science with tremendous potential”.

Not a single save-and-sow cottonseed variety with insecticidal traits has come from ICAR—or any public research institute, though 16 years have passed since India approved genetically engineered Bt cotton, which is poisonous to a scourge called bollworms. Its cotton institute in Nagpur said last month it is ready with 21 such varieties that have an insecticidal gene (of Monsanto) which went off-patent in 2012. But Monsanto has commercialised a more effective two-gene trait since 2007. The recent emergence of pink bollworm resistance to Bt cotton calls for still stronger cotton plant-protection traits.

Deepak Pental of the University of Delhi, whose team has developed genetically engineered mustard, says he has a single-gene Bt cottonseed technology which, according to him, is more toxic to bollworms than Monsanto’s but will share it with public bodies only if requested.

ICAR denies it is lagging in genetic engineering. Mohapatra says several of its institutes are engaged in changing the anatomy of the rice plant using recombinant DNA technology to increase the concentration of carbon dioxide in the tissue so that more photosynthesis can take place.

ICAR, he says, is trying to improve nitrogen use efficiency (a) through nitrogen-fixing bacteria, (b) through plant and rhizobia interaction, and (c) by manipulating host genetic mechanisms. “With regard to phosphorus use efficiency, the genes and markers are available and we are doing breeding. We have very good success.”

In pulses, Mohapatra says ICAR has a programme to make tur or pigeonpea resistant to pod borers. The Indian Institute of Pulses Research, Kanpur, he says, has identified six to seven events (mutated transgenic cells). Event selection (for the best) will happen next. “In three to four years, we should be able to deliver it to the farmers if the regulatory system approves.”

But ICAR must be quick in getting its technologies to the market. This year’s Economic Survey said that the productivity of 63.5 per cent of public sector agricultural scientists is “low to very low”. The drive is lacking. The director of the Central Institute of Cotton Research has been touting the virtues of high-density planting of non-GM cotton as an alternative to Bt cotton hybrids (whose seeds are costlier and need more water and nutrients) in rain-dependent Vidarbha. But the field demonstrations are neither audible nor visible in the absence of a high-decibel push.

Mohapatra admits that ICAR has difficulty in attracting talent to agri-biotechnology research because the public and political mood is against the science of genetic engineering. “This is one point which is being discussed among scientists and also political leaders,” he says.

To ensure public confidence in the safety of GM crops, ICAR should conduct field trials even for private companies. Currently, its sites and those of state agricultural universities are being used. “If I have a sponsored project, I will be very happy,” says Mohapatra. “For (GM) mustard, we did field trials in Punjab, Delhi and Bharatpur.” He says the process of obtaining permissions from state governments for field trials, which are compulsory since 2010, and often denied, should also become less cumbersome.

Another area of partnership for ICAR is big data analytics. Countries like the United States are now moving towards precision agriculture, where onboard computers guided by satellites train farm equipment to deliver precise amounts of nutrients and protective sprays on the basis of soil, weather and crop data. Mohapatra says ICAR has huge amounts of data waiting to be made sense of. He thinks Indian IT industry has not developed the requisite skills. “The government needs to put in considerable effort in this area.”

Nutrition security is another area of interest for ICAR. From more crop per drop, t

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