Indian biotech firms struggle for food breakthrough

Indian biotech firms struggle for food breakthrough
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First Published: Sun, Jun 17 2007. 11 45 AM IST
Updated: Sun, Jun 17 2007. 11 45 AM IST
By Anil Penna/AFP
Bangalore: Metahelix Life Sciences, a biotech firm founded by five Indian scientists, says it is doing research that may lead to the development of insect-protected rice and high-yield corn.
Avesthagen, which like Metahelix is Bangalore-based, is working to devise better-yielding oilseeds and improve tolerance of food crops to drought and salinity.
But a breakthrough is eluding a $2 billion biotechnology industry struggling to replicate the success of BT cotton, which helped turn India into a net cotton exporter from a net importer in four years.
Companies like Metahelix and Avesthagen use micro-organisms such as bacteria or substances like enzymes to make drugs and synthetic hormones, speed up industrial processes and devise better crop varieties.
“BT cotton is the hero of today, there are more waiting in the wings,” Metahelix managing director K.K. Narayanan said in an interview in Bangalore, the hub of India’s biotechnology industry.
“They are coming,” is what Avesthagen CEO Villoo Patell told AFP about the would-be successors to BT cotton on the food production front.
Neither Narayanan nor Patell was willing to hazard a guess as to when the breakthrough will come, even as the sector faces calls to help reverse a decline in food output that forced the country to import wheat last year for the first time in six years.
“No country as large as India can afford to meet its food requirements through imports when we ought to be self-sufficient,” finance minister P. Chidambaram told Bangalore Bio, the annual biotech industry event, on 7 June.
Two-thirds of Indians depend on farming for a living, yet food output is growing slower than the population, said Chidambaram, implicitly criticizing biotech firms for not doing enough to boost agriculture.
Manufacturing, including car producers, is expanding 12% and the services sector, such as mobile-phone service providers, 13%, contributing to record economic growth of 9.4% in the year ended March.
But the rate of agricultural growth fell from 5% in the mid-1980s to less than 2% in the past five years.
Annual per capita food grain production fell from 207kg (455 pounds) in 1995 to 186kg last year, ominous for a country that wants to double food output in 10 years.
India, the world’s second-largest wheat producer, exported none last year and had to resort to imports this year after output fell short of domestic demand.
Despite the economy speeding ahead at a sizzling pace in recent years, thousands of debt-ridden farmers commit suicide every year due to distress caused by crop failures.
That’s worrisome for the Congress party-led coalition government headed by economist Manmohan Singh that came to power in 2004 on the promise of boosting the rural economy and the livelihoods of farmers.
Last month Singh said the Centre would spend $6 billion to help poor farmers by investing in technology and infrastructure to bring crops to market more efficiently.
“Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, said at the time of independence (in 1947) that anything can wait but agriculture can’t; that statement is relevant today,” said Ganesh Kishore, managing director of Burrill and Company.
“India is now at a point where there’s no self-sufficiency in food,” Kishore added. “Biotech holds the key.”
India’s biotech industry, touted as the next big thing after software, has had the most success in the field of drugs, with low-cost treatments for health problems ranging from cholesterol to cancer.
But it has yet to turn aggressively to one of the country’s most pressing problems, farming, which one newspaper editorial said was a decision to focus on profits over people.
But there have been some successes. India adopted the commercial sowing of BT cotton in 2001, resulting in one of its most dramatic gains in agriculture since independence in 1947.
The country has an estimated four million cotton farmers, and some 60 million people depend on cotton and the textile industry to make a living.
The average yield has increased since then from 140kg a hectare to 478kg in the last cotton-growing year, said Metahelix’s Narayanan.
BT seeds are enhanced with a naturally occurring soil protein — Bacillus thuringiensis — to ward off bollworm pests that used to eat up 80% of the crops of farmers.
But since BT cotton, the biotech industry’s agricultural cupboard has been bare of trophies, partly because of regulatory delays that prevent products from coming quickly to the market, said Narayanan.
There are also concerns about food produced with biotechnology, he said.
For politicians, that is a lame excuse.
“For humans, the basic thing is food, which biotech is neglecting,” said Bandeppa Kashempur, agriculture minister of Karnataka state whose capital is Bangalore. “The agrarian crisis day by day is growing.”
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First Published: Sun, Jun 17 2007. 11 45 AM IST
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