For decades now, agriculture has been under pressure to flourish due to climate change, increasing population and reduced natural resources. With global population estimated to touch 9.7 billion by 2050, forcing food production to increase by 59% to 98%, the pressure on agriculture is mounting everyday. But the problem magnifies in the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic with disruptions in the agri supply chain right from making quality seeds available to farmers to growing the crop pest free to efficiently manage the crops post-harvest.
But before we had to face these challenges, we had a solution in hand in the form of biotech and seed science. GMOs are an answer to increase per area crop yields, reduce usage of crop protection solutions, shield the plants from harsh weather, grow quaility and nutritious food for our consumers, increase incomeand social status of our farmers. This blog retraces the impact of biotech crops documented over the years and showcases the benefits that it has provided to the farmers, consumers and the country.
- Bt cotton: The only approved Bt crop in India, cultivation of Bt Cotton has reported a net yield gain of 33-37.5 percent as compared to the non Bt varieties. In addition, it has reported significant reduction in usage of pesticides, thereby also providing a higher profit margin to the farmers. Access a detailed report here
- Bt brinjal: Bt Brinjal has a similar impact on farmer welfare and increased production in Bangladesh. Since they adopted Bt Brinjal in 2014, the 150,000 smallholder farmers have seen a 6-fold increase in net returns. Bt brinjal proved to be 100% effective in fighting FSB without pesticides and also safe for human consumption. Read this report to find out how Bangladesh is now a role model for rest of the world.
- Golden Rice: The philippines recognized the potential of Golden Rice to help fight Vitamin A deficiency that has helped provide 30-50% of average requirements of expecting mothers and monetary gains between $23-137 million. Read more in our blog here
- GMO Tomato: The potential of biotech is not limited to just income and nutrition. Mexican scientists have unlocked the possibility of developing GMO Tomatoes as edible vaccines for COVID19. This comes as a relief when worldwide 3.6 million people have been infected by the virus and over 100 vaccines have been tested without conclusive success. Using plants as a vaccine biofactory can also help address global epidemics like malaria, HIV, Hepatitis, Polio amongst others. Scientists have also been successful in initial tests of using GM carrots to cure Gaucher disease.
Since they have been adopted, biotech crops have led to a $186 billion increase in farm incomes, 8.4% reduction in use of pesticides and saved 184 million hectares of land from cultivation (see our infographic). If we do not give science a chance now, we will miss yet another opportunity to meet our #ZeroHunger goals.
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Biotechnology, especially genetic modification has been one of the most controversial technologies in agriculture. The controversy stems from a lot of misunderstanding around the technology and a host of common myths.
Let’s look at some of these common myths and the truth to help everyone get a clear view of the technology
If this were true, why would over 19 developing countries adopt biotech crops to meet their growing nutritional and income needs? There is no documented proof that biotech crops pose a threat to human or animal health. Hence, at this point, these allegations are only speculations. Infact, biotech varieties such as Golden Rice and Bt corn have demonstrated nutritional success. Golden rice, a variety developed with more Beta carotene as compared to traditional rice, is a solution in the developing countries where vitamin A deficiency is common. It can alone provide 30 to 50% of the estimated average requirement of Vitamin A in pregnant mothers and young children, and help address 57-99% of vitamin A requirements in preschool children in The Philippines and 89%-113% requirements in Bangladesh.
- GM crops harm the environment
An article in World Economic Forum mentions that Insect-resistant Bt crops have markedly reduced pesticide use. They have led to roughly 443 million kilograms less pesticide (active ingredient) between 1996 and 2010. Hence, biotech crops are in fact, beneficial for the environment, especially for the biodiversity of birds and insects, and less contamination in water as well. ISAAA brief 2017 states that the reduction in carbon emissions due to biotech crops, was equivalent to removing 16.75 million cars from earth! Similarly, herbicide tolerant crops improve the quality of topsoil.
One of the surprising myths around GM technology, nay-sayers claim that biotech crops are not tested. Infact, GM technology is one of the most thoroughly tested technology, for scientists acknowledge safety as priority. GMOs are thoroughly tested against strict biosafety protocols for their impact on human and animal health, and environment. Some of these tests and trials are so elaborate that they span across years. Hundreds of scientific papers have been published confirming that GM crops are safe for consumption. In addition, every country’s food administration agencies such as Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US, conduct their independent health assessments along with results from field trials. It is important that the consumers let go of this worry.
The fact is that modern methods of crop improvement such as genetic modification are responsible for a significant increase in yield across the world. ISAAA reports conclude that GM crops are the fastest adopted technology in agriculture, with documented increase of ~113-fold since 1996, with an accumulated area of 2.5 billion hectares.
The only solution to this debate is that farmers be given a choice to grow crops and consumers be given a choice to buy their produce.
Plant health is pivotal to the food that we eat and with rising challenges due to climate change, it has become more important to ensure that health of plants are maintained for sustainable crop production. To bring attention to the issue, the Food and Agriculture Organisation announced 2020 as the year dedicated to plant health.
Seed innovation is crucial for restoring plant health and enhancing them to fight climate change and bring nutritious food to the consumers. Here are three seed innovations which are transforming agriculture by developing sustainable plants.
Pests are a major source of crop loss worldwide. Cambridge reports suggest that the total global potential loss due to pests varied from about 50% in wheat, more than 80% in cotton production, 26-29% for soybean and 31%, 37% and 40% for maize, rice and potatoes, respectively. Biotechnology plays an important role in developing insect resistant crops which are better managed to fight pests internally. For eg crops such as cotton equipped with δ-endotoxin genes from Bacillus thuringiensis has helped create pest resistant cotton. Similar pest resistant Brinjal, maize and potato varieties have gone on to help farmers and consumers with bountiful produce.
Managing CO2 emissions
Using fertilisers, machines, rice cultivation, manure management, field burning of crop residues etc contributes to CO2 and methane emissions. Inputs such as fertilizers often become a catch 22 situation in agriculture because they are important for plant health from food production point of view, but at the same time, severely affects the plant health as well contributes to GHG emissions. Seed innovations not only help plants but also manages GHG emissions. For instance, herbicide tolerant soybean and canola crops require zero or no-till activities hence reducing loss of soil carbon. Similarly, insect resistant cotton crop requires less fertilisers, also saving CO2 emissions. According to International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), biotech crops helped save 27.1billion kgs C02 which is equivalent to removing 16.7M cars off the road for 1 year.
Growing more with less
Seed innovations such as gene editing technologies, CRISPR etc are helping scientists to develop drought tolerant, salt tolerant, heat tolerant and many such varieties of healthy crops which are suited to the area’s climate conditions. These qualities have helped crops fight climate change and provide healthy food. Such advancements have helped manage production of maize, corn, wheat and other essential grains across sub saharan African countries and many developing countries of Asia as well. Drought tolerant crops are estimated to retain 17.5% more moisture than traditional varieties to help endure drought and reduce requirement of irrigation.
Overall, improved seeds require less inputs than traditional seeds. Through seed innovation, farmers saved 183 million hectares of land from plowing & cultivation as these plants are healthy even with less inputs. Estimates by PG Economics (2014) stated that to maintain the level of production for the year, using traditional crops, farmers would need land equivalent to 12% of the available arable land in the US.
Despite the benefits that seed innovations have, it has seen resistance across the world. However, countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, The Philippines, Vietnam etc have shown an open mind towards adopting such innovative technologies. Seed innovation is one of the most misunderstood scientific interventions in agriculture, despite no documented adverse effects of human health. But with International Year of Plant Health and renewed discussions on the role of seed innovation, an improvement in the acceptance and adoption of such technologies is expected in the coming future.
The Philippines ended 2019 with a progressive step, when they became the first country with Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) to approve GM golden rice for cultivation and consumption, making it a landmark judgement. The government report stated that Golden rice is safe for consumption for humans and animals, same as the traditional rice varieties.
Philippines has had a long-documented history of VAD in children despite monumental public health interventions like oral supplements. The International Rice Research Institute estimates that Vitamin A deficiency has been on the rise in The Philippines for the last five years, affecting children as young as 5 months.
The research on developing a variety of rice that could help address VAD started in the 1990s and Golden rice was developed in early 2000s. The variety was developed by enhancing the amount of beta carotene in the grain, a yellow and orange pigment which is found in plants and the human body converts these pigments to Vitamin A. Already present in carrots and sweet potatoes, the pigment held answers to help developing countries fight VAD if they could include the pigment in their staple diet- rice.
Since development, golden rice has been studied and its potential impact evaluated by many credible organisations. Detailed comparison between Golden and traditional rice varieties shows that there is no compositional difference in terms of fibres, sugars, fatty acids, etc between the two. The only difference is in the amount of Beta Carotene which is a Vitamin A precursor.
In addition, Golden rice can alone provide 30 to 50% of the estimated average requirement of Vitamin A in pregnant mothers and young children, thereby addressing the deficiency at the very root cause. ISAAA also estimates that Golden Rice can help address 57-99% of vitamin A requirements in preschool children in The Philippines and 89%-113% requirements in Bangladesh. If countries approve golden rice, they can also enjoy significantly reduced health costs and annual monetary gains between $23 million and $137 million. Not just this, the golden rice variety is also an input efficient grain, as it requires 30% less water as compared to traditional rice varieties. This is a huge advantage given that rice is a water intensive crop and we need to manage water consumption in agriculture for the betterment of the planet.
In India, the future of Golden Rice is far from being certain. As a rice eating country, India is definitely a potential market especially given the VAD problems in the country as well. Hence, we must learn from The Philippines and several other countries including the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia which have cleared the variety of safety issues.
2020 is a start of a new decade, and hopefully also the start of a new thought process for all of us. One where we give science a chance, and allow for scientific facts to present a case. If India wants to address its challenges of VAD, we must be open to bringing Golden Rice to the country, and its citizens.
According to the latest report by ISAAA, “The State of Commercialization of GM Crops: 2018”, biotechnology was the fastest adopted crop technology in the world, as biotech crops increased almost 113 times since 1996. With an accumulated biotech area of 2.5 billion hectares across the world, biotechnology also diversified its offerings to consumers.
However, as many countries opened their doors to new and existing biotech crops, India continues to remain in a state of ambiguity. On one hand is the moratorium on Bt Brinjal and issues with trials of GM Mustard, on the other, India continues to be the leader in export of cotton with Bt cotton crops. Hence, India’s stance on growing and consuming GM crops is not clear, with multiple delays and hurdles.
One reason for this is the many myths surrounding the efficacy of the technology, which has led to blurred perceptions. However, leading scientists of the country including Swapan Dutta, CD Mayee, Bhagirath Chowdhury, RS Paroda, G Padmanabhan and others, recently wrote an article titled “India needs GM technology in Agriculture” in Current Science, that addresses several myths around the GM technology to give a clear and scientific perspective on the situation. This blog is also inspired by the article which can be accessed here.
One of the biggest concern naysayers have is that genetically modified crops (especially Bt and Herbicide-tolerant crops) have genotoxic effects. But this concern is addressed in many reports that have established that “Bt traits have increased insect biodiversity on the field”, “reduced the gap between actual and potential yield” and “GM foods are as safe to eat as conventional foods and don’t pose any risk to the environment”. Read more here.
The other concern comes from the misconception that Bt Cotton has failed in India. But Bt cotton is the reason that India stands strong on the world map for cotton production. With a 95% adoption rate, Bt cotton helped raise cotton production from a meagre 13.6 million bales (in 2003) to over 39.8 million bales (in 2017), an estimated 30% increase with an average farm income gain of $207/ha (after removing the cost of technology). With such demonstrated impact, one cannot even fathom the origin of this myth that Bt Cotton was a failure in India.
All the stakeholders- policy makers, farmers, citizens and advocates must consider that scientists are a committed community themselves and are conscious of the affects their products create. Similarly, the Indian regulators abide by strict guidelines to evaluate the GM crops as such as well as its impact on the environment in multiple locations and years, before approving their cultivation. Hence, each biotech crop is designed specially to solve the contextual problem of that area. Bt Cotton was designed to fight bollworm attacks and assessing its ability to fight other secondary pests is not the right approach. It is important to continuously improve technologies and reinvent it to upgrade with the times. Hence, a policy framework to research and develop GM technology in India is important.
nterestingly, apart from the economic gains sighted above, using biotech crops has also led to many social benefits. Dr CD Mayee and Dr Bhagirath Chowdhury observed in their studies that when farmers enjoy improved income through biotech crops, they are able to improve the standard of living for their families. Most importantly, they focus on better education, health and nutritional opportunities. According to one such study, farmers invested 75% more in healthcare facilities of their family members, enjoyed a 77% increase in consumption of nutritious food and demonstrated an 85% increment in investment in education of their children.
At a time when small scale farmers are leading the adoption of biotech crops across the world it is a misfortune that Indian farmers do not have access to the latest innovations and the right to decide whether they should use them or not. However, the report brings to light a holistic picture of the pros of GM technology. It builds a strong case for considering the technology and building an environment that safely and scientifically assesses its impact.
India needs genetic modification technology in agriculture
Estimated at 110.15 million tonnes, India set a new record in the production of rice in 2016-17 and this is higher than 2015-16 estimates which stood at 104.41 million tonnes. Further, agricultural exports increased from INR 2,27,193 crores in 2012-13 to INR 2,27,554 crore in financial year 2016-17 registering a growth of nearly 0.15%. This success can be primarily attributed to the higher exports of rice (both basmati and non-basmati) followed by spices, cotton and sugar.
While the data indicates how rice is an integral part of India – both in terms of production and trading commodity, it is essential to note its impact on natural resources. Conventionally, production of rice is a water intensive activity. The transplanted rice needs to be water lodged for at least 1.5-2 inches for 5-6 weeks post transplanting, to control growth of weeds. Due to this practice, 1 kg of rice requires 2000-3000 litres of water. The flooded rice field also leads to greenhouse gas emissions as methane, a potent greenhouse gas is produced by bacteria in the waterlogged soil. During transplantation, farmers use an average of 50 ltrs/acre diesel which also contributes to GHG emissions. In addition to these, there are different problems like lowering water table, scarcity of labour for transplanting during peak periods and deteriorating soil health that demand exploration of some alternative method to sustain productivity of rice as well as natural resources.
One such technology is the Direct Seeded Rice (DSR) which makes rice production water efficient. DSR Technology, one of the oldest techniques of crop establishment, has a low input demand and in light of the challenges sighted above, is gaining popularity again. The technology solves most of the problems – it is less labour intensive, requires less water, less drudgery, helps in early crop maturity, has a low production cost, provides better soil physical conditions for crops and reduces methane emissions.
DSR refers to the process of establishing a rice crop from seeds sown in the field rather than by transplanting seedlings from the nursery. It has been recognized as the principal method of rice establishment since 1950’s in developing countries. Direct seeding can be done by sowing of pregerminated seed into a puddled soil (wet seeding) or standing water (water seeding) or prepared seedbed (dry seeding). Improved short duration and high yielding varieties, nutrient and weed management techniques encouraged the farmers to shift from traditional system of transplanting to DSR culture.
DSR technology saves upto 30% water used in transplantation as it uses chemical weedicides to remove these weeds. It also helps farmers save upto 15 litres/acre through this technology as puddling operations are eliminated. Further, farmers who currently spend Rs 6000-7000/hectare on labour can save Rs 5500-6000/hectare using DSR.
Farmers across the country have been implementing DSR technology with encouraging success. As per a news report, Tarseem Singh, a farmer from Raikot shared his success story of using DSR technology. He said that he employed the technology two years ago, when he watered the rice fields to prepare the seedbed, but thereafter has not used groundwater again. Karnail Singh, another farmer from the region using DSR Technology shared that he not only saved Rs 2,000 per acre on labour costs but also got 3 to 4 quintals of additional produce using the technology. With improved soil conditions, the benefits of DSR reach beyond rice to the next crop planted in the field.
These alternate technologies and techniques have been embraced and benefits have been reaped by many farmers. DSR Technology should be implemented in India and several states will be benefitted by it in the coming years. Government should definitely support the upskilling and training of our farmers in implementing this technology to help them experience the joy of an improved yield from 22 plants/m2 (in case of transplanted rice) to 40 plants/m2 (using DSR).
Agriculture in the 21st century is facing significant challenges, most importantly the pressure to feed the growing population. Set to reach 9.8 billion people by 2050, the food demand is estimated to increase by 50%. This burden will be passed on to the developing countries, where resources are limited.
If we want to sustain the food demand, we will have to adopt multiple steps like restoring unproductive land, avoiding deforestation, encouraging technological interventions for seed productivity, resource management, reducing food wastage etc. Therefore, it is consequential that we –
Increase food production without expanding agricultural land
While measures to manage food demand is important, the world must look at ways to boost production of agricultural output without expanding the agricultural land. For this, improvement in crop productivity is essential by deploying technological interventions and innovations.
A report by World Resources Institute, “Creating Sustainable Food Future, December 2018” states that to make food supply sustainable, it is important to boost efficiency of natural resources used in agriculture. It implies that we need to produce more food per hectare which will reduce the need for agricultural land and the emissions in production processes. The report further mentions that farmers have enjoyed increased yields by farming in smarter ways and are using technologies which are opening up new potentials.
In this regard, breeding of improved crops has historically proved to be very effective. This is primarily because crop breeding has equipped farmers to maintain their crop productivity while coping up with external factors such as climate change and unpredictable monsoons. Many studies have shown that countries such as Brazil and China, which have continuously invested in crop breeding techniques and adopted a favourable policy structure, have seen vast improvements in their yield.
Here the key word is “continuous”. The process of innovation is not one time, and these countries have invested in bringing new and improved varieties for their farmers in a sustained manner. For example, in the US, improved varieties of maize were introduced at an average of every three years. However, there are several countries which takes as long as 13-23 years to introduce new varieties for farmers to adopt. (Source: Atkin et al 2017)
At this juncture where policy makers and researchers across the globe have chosen to prioritise feeding the growing population and mitigating climate change as their goals, India cannot afford to dwell in the realm of food insecurity. With the vast pool of researchers and scientists that the country has produced, we need to accept the potential that technologies such as gene editing bring for agriculture and food production. Today, investment in global public agricultural research is approximately $30 billion per year whereas private investments are merely $4 billion. For a sustained growth, it is essential to tap this vast opportunity and invest in research in a sustained manner to bring in new technologies and innovations.
In the next part of this blog, we will talk about two key crop breeding techniques – genetic modification and gene editing.