When the Central Rice Research Institute at Cuttack in Orissa cooperated with the International Rice Commission in 1950 in an indica-japonica (two geographical races of rice) crossing programme and produced ADT 27 in India and Mahsuri in Malaysia, not a single agricultural university was willing to release the latter in India. Though Mahsuri had significant yield advantages in low fertility soils and very desirable grain quality it was highly susceptible to blast, which could reduce yield by as much as 74 percent. But it spread rapidly from breeders’ trials and was disseminated from farmers to farmers. By the early 1970s it was the most widely grown rainfed rice variety in Asia.
Mahadevappa, who developed India’s first hybrid rice and bred the very popular KRH-2 cites Mahsuri rice as an example of the course that genetically modified crops could take in India. Though shunned by political leaders and vilified by environmental fetishists and extreme Leftists, he believes they will become as acceptable as Mahsuri rice variants. He finds a parallel in Bt cotton which now occupied 95 percent of India’s cotton acreage despite being wrongly blamed for farmer suicides. ‘Bt cotton did not come into the field because of policy makers or political leaders.’ he says.
The rice breeder who was twice the vice-chancellor of the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, the last time between 1997 and 2000, says ‘No KVK (Krishi Vigyan Kendra) member said anytime we do not want GM crops. Nobody said.’ Mahadevappa is chairman of the Krishi Vigyan Kendra Committee. KVKs impart vocational training to farmers and extension workers.
Walking the talk on GM crops, the Karnataka expert group on agricultural biotechnology, of which Mahadevappa was chairman, has made several recommendations to the government to promote the science and dispel myths. The draft of the report was submitted in June 2014 and has been sent by the relevant ministry for comments, Mahadevappa said.
The recommendations of the group are:
Regulatory: (1) Immediately constitute and activate state biotechnology coordination committees and district level committees to monitor and coordinate with central committees, the Review Committee on Genetic Modification and the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee on any matter concerning the development and deployment of any regulated agricultural biotechnology product.
(2) Set up an inter-departmental coordination committee for agricultural biotechnology comprising additional secretary-level officers from the ministries of agriculture, horticulture, fisheries and animal husbandry with additional secretary, social welfare as ex-officio member. It should take the initiative to address controversies and be responsible for developing and disseminating the official position of the state on such issues.
Educational: (3) Upgrade school syllabi for life science subjects (biology, physics and chemistry).
(4) Provide grants to all biotech departments of the state’s higher learning institutions in agriculture and cognate sciences for facility upgrade.
(5) Provide Rs 5 cr every year for faculty improvement programmes in agricultural sciences.
Public outreach: (6) Use visual and social media to spread the correct information about safety and benefits of biotech and dispel misinformation by anti-biotech activists. Provide Rs 10 cr to support NGOs for public outreach based on acceptable proposals. Implementation of the proposals should be monitored.
(7) Establish public outreach cells at farm universities to create awareness about biotech. A one-time allocation of Rs 10 cr and recurring grants of Rs 5 cr a year to be made for this purpose.
R&D in public institutions:(8) A committee of experts should develop a priority list, crop-wise, based on economic significance of the problem to the state and the technical capability to address it based on current state of knowledge.
Mission mode projects: (9) Provide Rs 100 cr to support five mission mode projects of five years duration each to address major problems, the solution to which can significantly improve the state’s agrarian economy and the incomes of farmers. Grant proposals should be peer reviewed for technical merit before funding. Funds should be released in tranches based on review of progress every year. There should be flexibility for mid- course correction and for induction or removal of partners.
Financial support to scientists in state institutions: (10) Small competitive grants to scientists in state academic institutions, whether public or private, should be provided to generate preliminary data for applying for big grants from national and international agencies. A fund of Rs 5 cr should be created to support about 200 such applications a year.
(11) The state should promote the development and deployment of GM crops that confer tangible benefits to farmers after having been found to be safe on the basis of rigorous scientific analysis. The fear of controversies should not stop the state from adopting GM crops. Field trials of GM crops should be allowed if they conform to national regulatory guidelines and are approved by GEAC. A special cell of the SBCC should be vested with the authority and resources to examine all applications for field trials and dispose them off in a time bound manner.
(12) Organic agriculture and GM crops reinforce each other in reaching the common goal of reducing chemical residues and increasing productivity without compromising environmental sustainability.
Biotech and biodiversity: (13) Since the enactment of the Biodiversity Act and its implementation through the National Biodiversity Authority and the State Biodiversity Boards, it has become increasingly difficult to conduct research or exchange biological materials including seeds and other plant parts due to technically inaccurate interpretation of rules without any consideration for the spirit of the act. The state government should constitute a committee of experts to correct the ambiguities and simplify rules and procedures. BDA should not be a hurdle to research and development in the area of ag biotech.
Promote Ag Biotech industries: (14) A venture capital fund should be set up with Rs 100 cr managed in PPP mode for the purpose.
Agri-business incubation centres: (15) One is being contemplated in UAS Dharwad. More of them should be set up in the premises of state agriculture institutions. A grant of Rs 10 cr should be provided for competitive proposals. A total of 50 cr over five years should be deployed.
(Photo: M Mahadevappa (left) listening to K K Narayanan, MD, Metahelix Life Sciences, a Tata group company, at Bangalore India Bio, February 2015)