In a quiet corner of a poly house maintained by the National Botanical Research Institute (NBRI), Lucknow, are manicured rows of cotton plants bearing flowers. Nothing quite unusual here; unless you are told that these cotton plants are resistant to tiny whitefly pests, which this year have wrecked havoc in cotton plantations across Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, causing heavy losses and triggering several reported farmers' suicides.
Red tape and the lack of a proper mechanism for speedy transfer of technology to farms prevented the commercial rollout of the variety, which could have saved the cotton crop.
The news about the damage to the cotton crop, especially in Punjab, started to trickle in by the middle of August and in the following weeks, 65-70 per cent of the crop had been destroyed.
The whitefly resistant cotton variety was first introduced to the scientific community in 2013. Yet it remained confined to the NBRI poly house even as the whitefly struck unsuspecting farmers in 2015.
PK Singh, the lead scientist, has been working on the project since 2007 and so far about 25 members, including PhD students have been part of the study, he says.
"In 2012-13 we had first demonstrated this whitefly resistant variety in the NBRI glasshouse and the following year it was demonstrated in our poly house in the presence of several reputed plant scientists from all over the country," he says.
The NBRI has filed for its patent in several countries, including India, Australia, the EU, South Africa, Canada, the US, Brazil and Mexico. The process of filing for patents had started in 2011.
"We are confident of receiving the patent soon as this remains the only genetically modified (GM) cotton variety in the world with effective protection against whitefly," Singh says.
In May 2013, the NBRI project team had presented a paper on the subject at the First International Whitefly Symposium at Crete, Greece.
In fact, India's leading farm biotech company Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco) was first apprised of the research as early as 2010.
"Subsequently talks were held with Mahyco for possible technology transfer and other collaborations. However, the negotiations were stuck last year over pricing and certain conditions," says Singh.
Mahyco finally withdrew from the negotiations citing uncertainty over the issue of GM crops in India. Cotton plantations in India use GM seed provided by Mahyco. These seeds cannot provide protection against whitefly.
The total cotton acreage in India is estimated at 40 million acres in nine states, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Telangana.
Whitefly has been damaging different crops in several countries at different time spans. "This is the first instance when whitefly caused such extensive damage to any crop in India. I estimate the resultant economic loss at $3-4 billion," Singh, who has been associated with the NBRI since 2006, says.
The NBRI has been working on cotton since 1994 and this is the reason the cotton plant was selected for developing the whitefly resistant variety. The cotton variety was first injected with a protein derived from a medicinal plant. This protein possessed anti-insect properties. This hybrid cotton variety was found whitefly resistant in glasshouse and poly house experiments.
"We have written to the Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, about the whitefly resistant cotton and they have shown interest," Singh says. The NBRI is also in talks with the Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur, which is an Indian Council of Agricultural Research laboratory, but nothing concrete has emerged.
Before this cotton variety can be made commercially available, it will need field trials after approval by the GM Board and other regulatory bodies.