* It's Time to Play God
* 'Snorkel' Genes Help Stop Rice Drowning
* Organic is Better For The Planet, But Not For You
* Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly
* Philippines Gung-ho about GM Crops
* Compositional Assessment of Transgenic Crops: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed
* Can Agricultural Biotechnology Help The Poor?
* Biotechnology Society of Nepal
* India Poised to Become World's Top Cotton Producer By 2015
It's Time to Play God
- Johnjoe McFadden, Guardian.co.uk, August 23 2009
The poet Joyce Kilmer wrote, "Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree". New research by Craig Venter, one of the main scientists behind the human genome sequencing project, may change all that. His latest research, published in Science, has succeeded in making a new form of life in the laboratory. The hope is that this "synthetic life" will eventually lead to custom-made organisms engineered to tackle the world's woes.
Engineering living organisms isn't new. Scientists have been genetically modifying microbes, plants and animals for decades. GM crops are grown on more than 2bn acres of the world's surface. But this is a kind of genetic tinkering. What Venter and many other scientists envisage is far more revolutionary: engineering entirely new forms of life.
Synthetic life enthusiasts claim that we need new organisms to do the tasks that the existing ones are not so good at. For instance, farmers around the world are increasingly growing biofuel crops. But these crops take up land that would otherwise be used to grow food, which is at least partly why grain prices have soared. There are already efforts to exploit other resources, such as sewage or plant waste. But natural organisms have their own agenda: they want to produce descendants rather than ethanol, so aren't so efficient at making fuel.
Venter is a pioneer of genome mining: excavating organisms living in exotic environments for novel genes. Some of these genes may be perfectly evolved for synthetic biology applications, such as biofuel production. But useful genes are scattered across hundreds of species, some of which can't be grown in the laboratory. What Venter and other scientists want to do is bring these genes together in an easy-to-grow custom-engineered organism.
Several years ago Venter began this challenge by making a minimal cell to provide a kind of chassis capable of bolting on lots of different synthetic biology tools. His latest research has taken the genome of one bacterium, modified it inside a yeast cell and then inserted it into the cell of a related bacterium to create an entirely new organism. The next step will be to add genes and pathways to make biofuel or other products.
Biofuels aren't the only target of synthetic biology. Scientists at the University of Manchester are trying to engineer bacteria to make novel antibiotics. Scientists are also seeking to make anti-cancer drugs, degrade harmful pollutants or produce valuable nutrients. Other scientists envisage more blue-sky projects such as engineering microbes to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or even to terraform Mars.
But why stop with microbes? It will soon be possible to make entirely novel forms of plants or animals (including man). New cereal crop plants might fix their own nitrogen, eliminating the need for costly fertiliser. Or, how about custom-made insects that seek out and kill locusts or malarial mosquitoes?
Of course, the prince of the realm and the anti-GM lobby will howl that we should not be playing God. Yet millions of tons of GM food are consumed each year without a single authenticated case of any harm. And although there have been justifiable concerns about the ecological impact of GM crops, research has tended to conclude they are more benign than conventional farming.
Mankind cannot stand still. Since the 19th century human longevity in the west has been increasing by about five hours every day. Most of our extra years have been bought with advances in science and technology. But much of the world has been left out. With people living longer, population growth, crop yields waning and global warming, we need to innovate. Synthetic biology provides new hope for a bright future.
'Snorkel' Genes Help Stop Rice Drowning
- Daniel Nelson, scidev.net, August 20, 2009
The discovery of "snorkel" genes that enable rice to survive underwater may lead to yield increases in lowland areas that flood frequently in the rainy season, say researchers.
In a letter published in Nature today (20 August), a team of Japanese researchers led by Motoyuki Ashikari, a professor at the Bioscience and Biotechnology Center at Nagoya University, say they have identified two genes that allow deep-water varieties to elongate their stems as water rises, helping the plant keep its leaves above water.
Importing the genes 'SNORKEL1' and 'SNORKEL2' into varieties that do not usually survive in deep water stopped the plants drowning. Once under water, their adopted genes switched on the process by which the stems became elongated.
Ashikari told SciDev.Net that the two genes and their molecular mechanism were previously unknown. He says he hopes that the team's work will help increase production in flood-prone areas, and that he is now aiming to develop new, high-yielding varieties with deep-water characteristics.
Thirteen years ago, David Mackill, now head of the plant breeding, genetics and biotechnology division of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, and his then graduate student Xu Kenong announced the discovery of a gene, Sub 1A, that allowed an Indian variety to survive submersion for more than two weeks.
Last December, researchers said that the rice, known as 'scuba' rice, had passed its field tests with "flying colours" (see Waterproof rice passes international field tests). Ashikari says that Sub1A is effective for short periods of flooding, but SNORKEL1 and SNORKEL2 function in heavy, long-duration floods.
Laurentius Voesenek of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who wrote a commentary on the findings in Nature, says that both the Sub1A and SNORKEL genes are regulated by accumulated ethylene inside the submerged plant.
"Many relevant crop species are very intolerant to water-saturated growth conditions," he says.
"During selection for yield, traits related to flooding tolerance are largely lost in these crops. Very often, wild relatives still contain these genes. They should be identified and subsequently introduced in good yielding cultivars."
About 30 per cent of rice acreage in Asia and 40 per cent in Africa are rain-fed paddies exposed to fluctuating water levels. Sophie Clayton of IRRI told SciDev.Net that Bangladesh and India are the countries with most to gain from flood-tolerant rice. She pointed out that in the Philippines alone, around 370,000 hectares of rice-growing land experiences flooding, causing average crop losses of about 250,000 tonnes every year.
Plant Biology: Genetics of high-rise rice
- Laurentius A. C. J. Voesenek & Julia Bailey-Serres, Nature 460, 959-960 (20 August 2009)
When subject to flooding, deepwater rice survives by shooting up in height. Knowledge of the genetic context of this and other responses to inundation will be a boon in enhancing rice productivity.
Plant biologyGenetics of high-rise rice
Deepwater rice lives up to its name: this variety can outgrow slowly rising floodwaters of up to 4 metres in depth. On page 1026 of this issue, Hattori and colleagues1 describe how they have identified two genes, SNORKEL1 and SNORKEL2, that contribute to this spectacular elongation response.
Rice — the seed of Oryza sativa — feeds billions. Although productivity per hectare has more than doubled since the 1960s, a further doubling will be necessary to meet projected requirements by 2050 (refs 2, 3). More than 30% of Asian and 40% of African rice acreage is cultivated in either lowland paddies (15–50 centimetres deep) or deepwater paddies (depth of more than 50 cm). But lack of control of water depth in rain-fed paddies can be a serious problem: in some areas, water levels rise progressively during the growing season and can reach several metres; in others, flash flooding can fully submerge plants for days or weeks. High-yielding rice varieties cannot survive either extreme of inundation. As a result, some flood-prone areas are planted with traditional local varieties that display a remarkable capacity for flooding-induced elongation — of up to 25 cm per day — or that can tolerate submergence for up to 15 days. But the high-yielding varieties are typically five times more productive than these flood-tolerant plants
full paper at http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v460/n7258/full/nature08258.html
Organic is Better For The Planet, But Not For You
- Joe Schwarcz, The Gazette (Canada), August 23, 2009 http://www.canada.com ; Via bites.ksu.edu
Judging by the hate mail directed his way, you would think that Dr. Alan Dangour had suggested banning baby kissing. In fact, all the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine nutritionist did was search the scientific literature for studies comparing the nutritional value of organic and conventional foods. The venomous attacks on his work, and in many instances his character, were triggered by his conclusion, that at least as far as the nutrients he examined were concerned, there was no appreciable difference.
Dangour did not claim that organic agriculture had no merit. He just presented data implying that choosing organic on the basis of expectation of superior nutrition was not scientifically jus tified. In no way is he part of any "cancerous conspiracy to poison your faith in organic food."
That ludicrous allegation comes from Joanna Blythman, a British "investigative journalist," who in her newspaper columns, books and frequent media appearances pontificates on the horrors of modern industrial agriculture and on the "toxins" in our food supply. She urges everyone to eat only organic fruits and vegetables, but only as long as they don't come from Israel. It seems her knowledge of Middle East history is on par with her knowledge of toxicology.
I know a little bit about this woman because in the course of writing my book An Apple a Day, I came across one of her newspaper articles with the spine-tingling headline: Could an apple a day damage your health?
Better check this one out, I thought. I didn't have to go beyond the first line to figure out what Blythman was all about: "The government wants school pupils to eat more fruit. But what's on offer may be polluted with toxic chemicals."
This was followed by the usual alarmist prattle about fruits being contaminated with pesticides, without any reference to amounts. Then came a universal condemnation of organophosphate pesticides which were "originally invented by the Nazis as nerve gas."
What does that have to do with trace amounts that may be found on produce? Absolutely nothing.
Blythman ridicules the prevailing scientific opinion that the benefits of eating fruit outweigh any risks that may be attributed to trace pesticide residues, and she advocates for a "health warning" on fruits and vegetables that are conventionally grown. She believes this would drive people towards organic produce, when the much greater likelihood is that such a warning would decrease fruit and vegetable consumption.
"The future has to be organic" is her motto. Grandiose mottos sound very seductive, but how about a dose of reality? Does Blythman really think that 7 billion people, or in fact, even just 50 million Britons, can be fed organically? Good luck on that one.
Now, don't get me wrong. I am not anti-organic agriculture. What I am is pro-science. Organic agriculture certainly has environmental benefits. Manure is less energy intensive to produce than synthetic fertilizers, and there is less environmental contamination from pesticides, although contrary to popular belief, a variety of pesticides are used in organic agriculture. Copper sulphate, lime sulphur, pyrethrins, rotenone and Bt bacteria are all allowed, and are not environmentally benign.
Scientific evidence supports the superiority of organic agriculture when it comes to environmental friendliness.
But Joanna Blythman and her luddite ilk do not restrict themselves to environmental issues. They viciously attack anyone who challenges their claim that organic foods have "obvious health benefits."
Obvious to whom? To people with preconceived ideas.
Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly
- A New book by James E. McWilliams . Amazon.com price $17.15; August 26, 2009 Hardcover: 272 pages, Little, Brown and Company, ISBN-10: 031603374X
Review by Susan Wittig Albert (Texas) - http://www.amazon.com/review/R1N2QNDMAULNUR/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm
Just Foods is an important book in the continuing (and continually escalating) debate over how we should grow our food and what we should eat. Environmental historian and reformed locavore James McWilliams, invites us to think logically and dispassionately about some of the most important food issues of our time--and of the future. Having read two of McWilliams' previous books, I expected a controversial, detailed, and well-documented discussion. I wasn't disappointed.
In summary, McWilliams argues
1) that global food production is more fuel-efficient and more economically necessary (for developing countries that need export markets) than is local food production/consumption ("locovorism");
2) that organic farming is no more healthy for people and for the land than is "wisely practiced" conventional agriculture;
3) that genetically-modified crops, in the right hands, are not to be feared and are in fact necessary to feed the ten billions of people who will live on this planet by 2050;
4) that we must drastically reduce our production and consumption of meat animals and non-farmed fish;
5) and that we must get rid of "perverse" subsidies that undercut fair trade.
Informed readers will likely find themselves in near-total agreement with McWilliams' last two points. Factory-farmed beef consumes 33 calories of fossil fuel for every single calorie of meat produced, as well as creating huge amounts of air, soil, and water pollution and--on the other end--causing serious health problems in those who over-consume. Other animals, including range-farmed animals, may be less damaging to the environment and to their consumers, but still require (by a 3-to-1 ratio) more energy to produce than they offer in return. Wild fish stocks have been harvested to the brink of extinction, and ecologically-sensitive fish-farming may be our only alternative, short of giving up fish altogether. Many readers may agree with McWilliams that "conscientious eaters must radically reduce current rates of consumption" of meat and wild fish if the world's ecosystems are to be saved. Many will also agree that an end must be put to wasteful government incentives such as corn subsidies.
But those same informed readers will find much to argue with in this book, for McWilliams overlooks several hugely important problems--elephants in the garden. As I see them, here they are.
The first elephant: fossil-fuel depletion. While I am sympathetic to McWilliams' arguments that we need to be sensible about "food miles" and make more effort to save energy in food selection and preparation, I feel that he has overlooked one of the most important argument against continuing and/or increasing our dependency on global food markets and conventional fossil-fueled agriculture: that over the next decade or two, oil will become so expensive that food will no longer be shipped halfway around the world. Conventional farming, with its reliance on fossil-fueled equipment, fertilizers, and insecticide, is not viable in the long term. Even the conservative International Energy Agency (IEA) now says that "peak oil" is likely to arrive by 2020 and bring with it skyrocketing fuel costs. Whether we like it or not, when the price of a gallon of gasoline hits double-digits, shortening the food miles from farm to fork may be a necessity. Indeed, many of us may be eating out of our front-yard gardens, raising chickens in the back, and purchasing shares in a neighborhood milk goat. Don't laugh. It's possible.
A second elephant. I would like to accept McWilliams' argument that we must make a kind of peace with biotechnology, and that genetically-modified crops may be important when it comes to feeding fast-growing human populations across the globe--populations that (he says) are on track to exceed the carrying-capacity of the planet. We need the promise of higher yields, drought tolerance, and pest-resistance. But McWilliams brushes aside too easily the huge issues of gene contamination; the failure of GM crops to reduce (as promised) pesticide use (Ha? - CSP); and their failure to produce the promised higher yields. And since GM crops are conventionally-farmed, the challenge of energy depletion must be faced here, too.
Still, it is not the flawed promise of GM crops that will most concern readers. It is the question of private ownership of the world's seeds (It is that evil Monsanto again - CSP). McWilliams himself acknowledges that the only place for biotechnology is "the public domain," and that as long as the genes of the world's most important foods are owned and controlled by a "handful of corporations intent on monopolizing patents in the interest of profit," none of its benefits will be achieved.
But that is the elephant. These technologies do not belong to the commons. They are held by monopolistic private corporations. And short of a revolution, corporations will continue to hold them. And as long as this is true, biotechnology is a much greater threat than a promise to the food security of peoples around the world.
A third elephant. Any book that presumes to point definitive directions for global agriculture absolutely must take into account the enormous cloud that looms on all horizons: global warming and climate change. McWilliams addresses this far too briefly. Under changing climate conditions, what kinds of foods will we be able to produce and where? How are these changes likely to affect pests and crop-destroying viruses? Global warming, fossil-fuel depletion, and privately owned crops are the huge elephants in the garden. That these issues are not front-and-center in this book is a substantial disappointment.
As always, I am grateful to James McWilliams for requiring me to read carefully and think about his arguments. While I read, I scribbled in the margin, made notes on the flyleaf, and ticked off the sources I intend to investigate. Just Food engaged me fully and completely--not always comfortably, but always productively.
The bottom line. Just read Just Food. Give yourself time to read (this is not skim-reading stuff) and equip yourself with pencil and paper or your laptop. Bring your own arguments to the table, and measure them against the author's, point by point. And do plan to spend more than a few hours reading and thinking and arguing with this book. You will find that it is time well spent.
Philippines Gung-ho about GM Crops
- Rituraj Tiwari, Economic Times, 18 Aug 2009,
MANILA: Amid lingering scepticism about possible health risks of GM (genetically modified) crops, Philippines is going ahead with its biotechnological adventures in crops. After commercializing the GM corn, Philippines government is set to introduce GM Golden Rice enriched with Vitamin A.
The government funded Philippine Rice Research Institute (Phil Rice) executive director Ronilo A. Beronio told ET that GM crops are answers to food security. “We are aiming to be self sufficient by 2013. Currently we produce 16.8 million metric tonnes of rice, which falls short by 15% to our requirements. GM crops are likely to play important role in attaining food security. The government has set aside US$250 million for this food security
programme,” he said.
PhilRice is providing more than 60 high yielding varieties of rice to farmers. Apart from that, it is also developing two varieties of Golden Rice, which are likely to hit the farms in 2011. “There is high acceptance of GM Rice in Philippines. A survey reveals that 69% of the farmers accept biofortified GM rice while 25% accept it under certain conditions. Only 6% farmers have totally declined it saying that GM crops are detrimental to human health. However, Golden Rice will have top pass through tough regulatory process before it’s released commercially,” Mr. Beronio said.
According to researchers of PhilRice, the field trials of Golden Rice have been encouraging. The National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines (NCBP) under the department of Science and Technology (DOST) is providing regulatory oversight to GM research under contained condition while the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) is strictly monitoring field trials.
“The Vitamin A rich GM rice is likely to fight against Vitamin A Defieciency (VAD) in countries like Philippine where the staple diet is Rice. Rice provides 50-80% of total caloric intake of Asians who are most likely to be suffering from VAD. Rice can reach even remote areas as compared to vitamin A supplementation,” he said.
Apart from that, Philippino farmers have been able to double their rice yields with the intervention of technology and sensible farming investment. “The average yield has increased from 4 tonnes/ha to 8 tonnes/ha within seven years. Around 20% improvement can be attributed to improvement in technology while 15% is due to extension of knowledge to farmers. The rest is due to the extensive use of high yielding varieties. We have clocked 2.7% yoy increase in yield as against the average 0.8% increase in other Rice growing countries,”
Mr. Beronio said.
Compositional Assessment of Transgenic Crops: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed
- Rod A. Herman, Bruce M. Chassy , Wayne Parrott; Trends in Biotechnology; In Press, Corrected Proof, 21 August 2009 Available online http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=PublicationURL&_tockey=%23TOC%235181%239999%23999999999%2399999%23FLA%23&_cdi=5181&_pubType=J&_auth=y&_acct=C000020718&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=432163&md5=b6eef19c955f4c65ff1cd2c55f64a6ee
Abstract: Compositional studies comparing transgenic crops with non-transgenic crops are almost universally required by governmental regulatory bodies to support the safety assessment of new transgenic crops. Here we discuss the assumptions that led to this requirement and lay out the theoretical and empirical evidence suggesting that such studies are no more necessary for evaluating the safety of transgenic crops than they are for traditionally bred crops.
Can Agricultural Biotechnology Help The Poor?
- Paul B. Thompson Science Progress, Jun 8, 2009. via bites.ksu.edu. Full text at
What should progressives think about the prospects for using biote chnology to improve the lot and prospects of poor farmers in the developing world? There are at least two paths one might follow in developing an answer to this question. The most heavily trodden weighs the benefits and risks of both known and imagined products of crop biotechnology for developing country farmers.
The benefits consist mainly in improving the productivity of cropping systems used in the developing world. The risks address biodiversity, health, and poor farmers’ economic vulnerability to the viscitudes of climate and world markets. The question of what biotechnology actually is, however, becomes the more contentious issue for those following this path.
The proven successes among transgenic crops are pest-resistant crops that produce their own Bt pesticides and crops resistant to chemical herbicides. The latter are of little use to resource-poor farmers, though they have been widely adopted by commercial soybean farmers in Latin America. The pest-resistant crops protect against only a limited range of caterpillars, but Bt cotton has been taken up by many cotton farmers in India, where it has also been deeply controversial.
Imagined crops include the nutritionally enhanced “Golden Rice,” still in development ten years after the initial hoopla, and so-called “terminator crops” that produce infertile seed, limiting farmers’ ability to save and sow seeds in successive years. Though the terminator technology is proven in principle, biotechnology companies deny having actually released any varieties containing this genetic construct. Anti-biotechnology activists assert that the terminator is in use.
Other disputants note that biotechnology is broader than genetically modified organisms, or “GMOs,” and assert that the most useful applications involve the use of genomics and genetic markers in selective breeding programs, or noncontroversial methods of cell culture or clonal propagation that can be described as laboratory enhanced extensions of the “cuttings” method used by home gardeners. Opponents have not yet taken this bait, except to see these alternatives as a Trojan Horse for GMOs. Thus goes the give and take along this rather well-trodden path.
I submit that dropping back and considering some more general tenets in the philosophies of development and of agricultural science is a more useful way to understand what is at issue. This is the less-traveled path, but perhaps the more useful in this debate. Here, too, however, there are broadly “pro” and “con” perspectives.
Although the lines of thinking here are complex, the “pro-biotech” perspective can be summarized in terms of three main themes. First, developing agriculture is the most effective and least objectionable route to achieving the goals of sustainable development. Second, improving the biological productivity of developing country farmers is critical to agricultural development. Finally, genetic enhancements (by whatever means) have been and remain critical to improvements in biological productivity. Each theme is both complex and potentially controversial in its own right, so succinct characterizations (such as I am giving here) are clearly simplified.
As such, virtually all technological improvements in agricultural production methods that have occurred over the last 150 years have relied upon genetic improvements in the crops farmers were growing. As such, there is a widespread belief among the agricultural scientists who populate ministries of agriculture and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations that future breakthroughs in productivity will require the best available tools for genetic improvement. Today, that means biotechnology.
An “anti-biotechnology” view might also track along three broad themes. First, many opponents of biotechnology in the developing world have been strongly influenced by critiques of deve lopment theory that were launched in the 1970s and 1980s. They are skeptical of whether so-called development processes truly benefit the poor. This skepticism can be reinforced by the agriculture-specific analysis of the “technology treadmill”—productivity enhancing technologies hurt the poor and lead to concentration in the ownership of land.
Finally, a systems-based view of agricultural science has challenged assumptions of the genetics model in agricultural science. Advocates of the systems view have been critical of the way that mainstream agricultural science has neglected system-level impacts of industrial farming methods at both the farm and ecosystem scale.
I will not provide detailed discussion of the arguments developed by skeptics of development. At the same time that Schultz was doing his work, analysts such as Gunnar Myrdal, Denis Goulet, Paul Streeten, and Samir Amin were showing that so-called development often made victims of the poor. In some respects, at least, Schultz’s agriculture-focused “human capital” approach anticipated these critiques, yet it is clear that Schultz’s affiliation with the University of Chicago meant that he was not viewed sympathetically by those who, in the 1990s, began to attack the free-market orientation of the so-called “Washington Consensus.”
The upshot is that skeptics of mainstream development and mainstream agricultural science have powerful reasons to believe that it is time to look at an alternative approach. They may not have a persuasive vision of the alternative, but the jaundiced view they take on the agricultural technologies of the 20th century means that they are unlikely to take claims of promised benefits by the boosters of agricultural biotechnology very seriously.
This skepticism has very little to do with the use of genetic engineering, concerns about “playing God” or “yuk factor” responses to GMOs. It does not even rely particularly strongly on risks that biotechnology poses for biodiversity. It is a mindset whose pivots are found in the way that agricultural science has abetted technology-driven processes that lead to more and more concentration of ownership. The fact that biotechnology has become embroiled in controversies over patents only heightens a concern about concentration and control that exists independently of intellectual property conventions or the idea of “owning life.”
So what should progressives think about the prospects for using biotechnology to improve the lot and prospects of poor farmers in the developing world? I believe that there is space for rethinking the putative tensions between Schultz-style agricultural development and contemporary development ethics. Furthermore, we should not dismiss the way that burgeoning processes of development in India, China, and the Pacific Rim had their roots in agriculture—even if these development processes were plagued by unevenness that sometimes victimized the poor.
At the same time, my cautious prepotency does not mean that we should open the door to agricultural biotechnology companies who see the developing world as a playground for developing biofuels and who moralistically portray “ending hunger” as a cloak for making inroads into local seed and supply markets.
It is, in fact, past time for progressives to discard simplistic thinking on agriculture in general, as if were a domain of quaint rusticity and guileless rubes. No blanket endorsem ent or condemnation of biotechnology makes any sense at all. Each proposal will have to be evaluated case by case. But doing that will require a discourse that is capable of following an argument of some sophistication and complexity. And that, in turn, will require a bit more literacy in the methods, purposes, and history of agriculture and agricultural science.
Biotechnology can help the poor, but whether it will depends on people of good will taking the time to understand and consider the arguments in some detail.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics At Michigan State University.
Biotechnology Society of Nepal
A apolitical, non-government, non-profit organization motivated for promotion of Biotechnology in Nepal and beyond. The establishment of society is an endeavor for development of Biotechnology by promotion and dissemination of knowledge about this cutting edge technology.
The society will act as an active platform for interchange of academic ideas about the research and theoretical perspective of biotechnology. The motive of the organization is to incorporate all national and cross-national academic institutions, research institutions, companies and individuals sharing interest in development of biotechnology in Nepal and beyond.
India Poised to Become World's Top Cotton Producer By 2015
- Bhagirath Choudhary & Kadambini Gaur, BioSpectrum Asia,
Bangalore, Aug 20, 2009: Bt cotton was approved for release in India by the Ministry of Environment and Forest, Government of India, on March 26, 2002. Over the last seven years, it has revolutionized cotton production in the country, doubling it from 13.6 million bales in 2002-03 to 31.5 million bales in 2007-08. The yield per hectare, which was hovering around 300 kg per hectare for more than a decade until 2002, touched an all time high figure of 560 kg per hectare in 2007-08. In fact, India emerged as the world’s second largest cotton producer in 2006-07, edging past the US, which held the second rank till then.
The increased availability of raw cotton at the domestic level has transformed India from being an importer of cotton to becoming a major exporter of raw cotton. A cursory analysis of global cotton outlook indicates that India’s share in the world cotton production has substantially increased from 12.5 percent in 2001-02 to 20.6 percent in 2007-08 – an indication that India is poised to become the number one cotton producer in the world by 2015.
Bt cotton was the first biotech crop to be approved in India despite fierce resistance and criticism from select anti-biotech groups. The approval came after six years of successful commercial cultivation in the US, Australia, Argentina and Mexico, and it corroborated the fact that Bt technology offers enormous benefits to cotton growers, especially small and resource-poor cotton farmers. In India, more than 5 million farmers have benefited from Bt cotton, with an additional Rs 12,800 crore ($3.2 billion) farm income generated from Bt cotton technology during the period 2002-07. This has been a real farm bonanza for poor farmers who otherwise had to depend on government-sponsored waivers and loans.
The large-scale adoption of Bt cotton technology has proved that there is no substitute for the timely introduction of cutting-edge technology in agriculture to tackle constraints in farm production. It is more so for small and resource-poor farmers who have limited means and resources at their disposal. Bt technology stands to offer equitable benefits to both small and big farmers; but when coupled with efficient weed management technology it can deliver more benefits to small farmers because they face greater constraints in production. Interestingly, one of the key features of biotechnology is that it can incorporate new traits in seeds in such a way that they can be easily made available to farmers irrespective of farm size, location and category. Bt cotton is one such example that has brought startling changes in the attitude of farmers about what biotechnology can do.
The adoption of Bt cotton in India has coincided with more than a doubling of yield and production at the national level. On an average, Bt cotton increases yield up to 31 percent due to effective control of bollworm insect, and also reduces insecticide sprays by 39 percent or more, depending on infestation levels. The income of farmers growing Bt cotton has increased on an average by Rs 10,000 ($250) or more per hectare. In addition to the substantial economic benefits from Bt cotton, there have been other benefits including environmental benefits, through reduction of insecticide requirements by half, resulting in significantly less exposure with positive health implications for farmers. In fact, the adoption of Bt cotton technology has led to a significant reduction in insecticide usage for the control of cotton bollworm.
In India, the area under Bt cotton hybrids in 2002, the first year, was 50,000 hectares and only a few thousand farmers in select states planted Bt cotton. In 2008, a record 50 lakh small and resource-poor farmers planted Bt cotton in more than 76 lakh hectares, or 82% of the total area used for cotton cultivation, making India the fourth largest adopter of biotech crops in the world. It is noteworthy that for the seven-year period, 2002-08, there was a 150-fold increase in Bt cotton in India, which is more than twice the 74-fold increase in global biotech crops during the 13-year period 1996-08. Early Bt cotton adopter states, including Maharashtra, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, have already been planting Bt cotton in more than 90% of the total cotton area in the respective states.
Notably, the rapid adoption of Bt cotton by farmers in different states was in sync with the fast approval of location-specific Bt cotton hybrids by the regulatory authorities in India. Over the last seven years, India has greatly diversified deployment of Bt genes and genotypes, which are well-adapted to the different agro-ecological zones to ensure equitable distribution to small and resource-poor cotton farmers. The number of Bt cotton hybrids approved in 2002 was only three, developed by a single company; by 2008, 30 indigenous seed companies were engaged in the production of Bt cotton, with 274 Bt cotton hybrids.
One of the distinguishable outcomes of Bt technology is the significant increase in cotton yield during the last seven years, which is said to be higher than the cumulative increase in the last five decades. Given the trend in cotton production, the Ministry of Environment and Forests’ Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) should expedite approval of second generation biotech traits in improved cotton hybrids, including efficient weed management technology (herbicide-tolerant cotton), improved fiber quality, and development of drought tolerant cotton that will help the Indian cotton sector to double cotton yields between 2010-15 and enable India to pip China to become the number one cotton producer in the world.
Besides fiber crops like Bt cotton, biotechnology also offers solutions for food crops. As the use of pesticides sprays and pesticide residues remain a daunting challenge, especially in fruit and vegetable cultivation, extending the proven benefits of Bt from a fiber crop to a food crop is obviously the next step. The development of Bt brinjal is an appropriate and timely step in that direction because brinjal is an important crop for small resource-poor farmers, consumers and Indian society at large.
Bhagirath Choudhary is the National Coordinator and Kadambini Gaur is the Scientific Officer at the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), New Delhi, India.