The government plans to fund a bio-technology project that will develop disease-resistant pepper plants in an effort to tackle the footrot disease that has affected India’s pepper production. The Rs15 crore project is the first to be undertaken by the commerce ministry under the public-private partnership model and will be implemented by Meta-Helix, a Bangalore-based biotechnology firm founded by K.K. Narayanan.
Meta-Helix plans to use biotech to tackle the disease that causes plants to wither away in a few weeks, especially in areas with high rainfall. Almost 30% of the 256,000 ha under pepper cultivation in Kerala and Karnataka was affected by this disease two years ago.The disease is caused by a soil-borne fungal pathogen and is one of the major factors limiting pepper production in traditional pepper growing areas of the Idukki and Wayand districts in Kerala. The disease has also spread to Coorg in Karnataka.
Meta-Helix is looking at ways to cure genetic plant diseases by suppressing the growth of faulty genes. Narayanan says this could be just one of the potential technological solutions that the government may consider. According to adviser in the government department of biotechnology S. Natesh, the representatives of Meta-Helix, the government’s Spices Board and other research institutes will soon meet to study the proposal. The issue was discussed by experts last week at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai. Minister of state for commerce Jairam Ramesh said private players had to be roped in for research to address the problems of pests and low productivity in the plantation sector.
According to Ramesh, plantation sector researches have always been crisis-driven. “We need to have a holistic approach and invest in research and development,” he said.
Renowned agri-scientist M.S. Swaminathan called for “co-ordination at different levels of research, both in the private or public sectors.” Spices, tea and coffee come under the commerce ministry but coconut, cashew and tobacco are under the agriculture ministry.