Govt looks to transgenic tech to boost pulses production

Govt looks to transgenic tech to boost pulses production

New Delhi: The Union government is drawing up a comprehensive programme to introduce transgenic technology to improve the productivity of pulses. Two officials in the agriculture ministry, who didn’t want to be identified, said a proposal was being drawn up, but didn’t specify a time frame or funds to be allotted for the project.

Swapan Datta, deputy director general, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, said several research projects testing a variety of potential gene candidates were on in universities and state agriculture research centres.

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“There is a need to integrate these programmes," he said on the sidelines of a conference last week to evaluate the pros and cons of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) technology.

Bt refers to a gene sourced from a soil bacterium that is transferred to plants and acts as an insecticide. The Bt gene activates a toxin that kills a class of pests largely responsible for damaging plants and, thus, denting yields. Datta said transgenic applications to pulses would also involve Bt.

Though pulses are a vital part of the Indian diet, being an excellent source of protein, domestic production is insufficient to meet local requirements. According to recent government estimates, India imports 2-3 million tonnes (mt) of pulses annually, nearly one-fifth of the 14.66 mt it produces every year.

Pulses, which broadly consists of chickpea, pigeonpea, moong bean, urad bean, field pea and lentil, face a multitude of problems. According to a report by the agriculture ministry, tabled in the Lok Sabha this month, pulses have traditionally got the short-end of the stick as they are largely cultivated on marginal and sub-marginal land under rainfed conditions by small and marginal farmers who can’t afford costly inputs such as fertilizer and continuous water supply.

They are genetically low yielding and less responsive to inputs compared with other cereals and oil seeds. Not only are they more prone to pests and diseases, hybrids and genetically modified varieties are not available to enhance productivity, the report added.

Thanks to Bt cotton’s success, the government is quite convinced of the advantage of transgenic technology.

“New technologies have to be introduced to increase food production. No wonders can happen with present technologies to produce foodgrain for the population that is constantly growing. Now that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government is planning to introduce the Food Security Bill...we will have to go for new technologies like Bt," said K.V. Thomas, minister of state for food and agriculture. He pointed out that the introduction of Bt cotton, despite harsh criticism against it, had made India a cotton exporting country.

Replying to a question in the Lok Sabha earlier this week, Thomas said in a written reply that there had been a 9.49% decline in the area of kharif pulse cultivation. As against normal production of 5.39 mt of kharif pulses in the country, the production during kharif 2009-10 is estimated at 4.42 mt, a decline of 0.97 mt. The government has already introduced a so-called centrally sponsored integrated scheme of oilseeds, pulses, oil palm and maize, being implemented in 14 states. “The transgenic plan could be a part of this approach," said one of the two agriculture ministry official mentioned earlier.

The agriculture department has said it plans to increase pulse production by 2 mt and acreage by 4 million ha by 2012.

Other experts, however, aren’t optimistic about the prospects for genetically modified pulses.

Bidyut Saramah, a scientist at the Assam Agricultural University, Jorhat, has developed Bt chickpea, under a project funded by the department of biotechnology. “Though the Bt gene integrates well into chickpea, they don’t grow very well. We are still trying to figure out," he said at the biotechnology conference, while presenting his research findings.

Bhagirath Choudhuri, with the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), a biotech lobby, said: “We’ll have to see the response to Bt brinjal. If that’s good then only will companies be interested in taking on pulses."

Bt brinjal, likely to be the first genetically modified food crop to hit the Indian fields, has been cleared by India’s apex biotech regulator.

However, environment minister Jairam Ramesh has said he will allow commercial release only after some more consultations.