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Brinjal debacle still raw, Bt rice on course

Dilip Kumar Jha  |  Mumbai 

Mahyco confident of regulatory approvals, plans launch within a year.

Bt brinjal may have gone into the deep freezer, but that has hardly dampened the enthusiasm of Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co (Mahyco) from coming up with new genetically modified (GM) crops.

Mahyco now plans to introduce Bt rice and Bt okra (bhindi) for commercial production in a year’s time.

Mahyco managing director Raju Barwale says the company has followed all mandatory guidelines and has spent nearly Rs 50 crore in research and field trials in the past six years to develop this technology. It is set to send the test results to the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) by June 2012.

* Mahyco started research on Bt rice and okra 6 years ago; it has spent ~50 crore so far
* It conducted adequate field trials, claims technology will help raise yield 20% & 30%, respectively
* It plans to submit documents to the review committee by 2012
* After scientific assessment, the proposal may be sent to GEAC
* Traders oppose move, say no need for Bt seeds for 15 years

Based on field trials, the technology will increase rice and okra yield by at least 20 per cent and 30 per cent, respectively. The estimated yield is substantially higher than the mandatory norm of 10 per cent for any new biotech genes in agriculture.

“We are very close to regulatory approval. As a first step in this direction, we are looking to submit the results of the tests and field trials with RCGM in six months. As a matter of practice, RCGM would assess whether we have followed all the government norms or not. And then, they would forward our request to the GEAC (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee) for final approval. We expect this to be completed in a year from now,” Barwale said.

Barwale said in the worst case scenario, the approving authorities could ask for one more field trial in the next season. "Since we have followed all the norms, we are sure to get approval for both Bt rice and Bt okra. Rice and okra are staple foods and the world needs high-yielding seeds to feed a growing population, especially when resources like land and water are getting squeezed," he added.

The company is working on four important features of this technology. The seed to be produced using this technology will control insects (both chewing/biting and sucking), be herbicide tolerant, manage nutrients and be drought/flood tolerant.

Owing to several government welfare schemes, the availability of farm labour and the cost have gone up significantly. So, Mahyco plans to inject genes in conventional seeds, which can control weeds around the crop. Apparently, the technology will also provide better management of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, generally fixed in the soil. Mahyco claims the technology will allow crops to sustain long periods of drought and suit Indian climatic conditions.

Mahyco's job, however, may not be that easy. The move for Bt rice and Bt okra is being opposed by rice traders and exporters. Vijay Setia, president of All India Rice Exporters Association, a representative body of rice traders and exporters, said, "We do not need Bt rice at least for another 15 years to feed even the growing Indian population. Bt companies should rather enhance farmers' education by making available all types of seeds, fertilisers, etc at mandis and conduct seminars there so that farmers can reap the benefits of these innovative technologies."

"Currently, the average rice yield in India stands at 2.8 tonnes a hectare, which can automatically be increased by 20 per cent if farmers are educated properly on the use of seeds, fertilisers and nutrients," he added.

With the evolution of the Green Revolution in Punjab and Haryana, the rice yield currently stands at five tonnes a hectare as against seven-eight tonnes in developed countries. "With the introduction of GM seeds, the existing high-yielding hybrid seeds will be spoiled," Setia added.

Commercialised in 2002, the first GM crop, Bt cotton, had witnessed tremendous success and elevated India to the world's second largest producer in just four years. Five years later, the 50:50 joint venture between Mahyco and US giant Monsanto submitted a proposal for Bt brinjal to the GEAC. The request was cleared but no progress has been made thereafter.

First Published: Thu, December 08 2011. 00:44 IST