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Surinder Sud: Seeding R&D

Companies are going slow on GM research thanks to the obstructive bureaucracy

Surinder Sud  |  New Delhi 

Unlike multinational agro-firms, which invest liberally on research and development (R&D) to evolve new seeds, Indian companies engaged in agri-business generally feel shy of doing so. There are only a few exceptions and one among them is Shriram Bioseed Genetics India limited which deals largely with hybrid seeds and is now getting into genetically-modified and transgenic seeds as well.

A group company of DCM Shriram Consolidated Ltd, Shriram Bioseed has, in past few years, put in place an extensive network of agricultural research centres, seed trial farms and demonstration fields spanning different agro-climatic zones in India and in some other countries such as Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and, recently, in southern China as well. It has a seed trial farm in Mindanao in the Philippines as well — Mindanao is known for the presence of almost all conceivable plant diseases, pests and other infections. This allowsfg the company to try out its seeds in different geographical zones, diverse agro-climatic conditions and under the worst possible circumstances before offering them to the farmers.

Besides the state-of-the-art laboratories, controlled-environment chambers and other research facilities at six locations in India and two abroad, it has built a large pool of germplasm of different crops as a captive source of genes that control various plant traits. This is something rare in the private sector. “Our germplasm collection is comparable with the largest private sector gene pools in the world. Only multinationals keep such collections”, maintains company chairman Ajay S Shriram and vice-chairman and managing director Vikram S Shriram who looks after the seed research and related business.

Significantly, Shriram Bioseed is collaborating with the Hyderabad-based International Crops Research Institute for Semi-arid Tropics (Icrisat) and has set up a well-equipped biotechnology laboratory in its campus for conducting research on hybrids and GM crops. It has a sterile chamber for seed research in absolutely infection-free environment.

Besides producing hybrids through conventional biotechnological tools, such as marker-assisted hybridisation, the company’s research facilities are capable of producing transgenic seeds as well. Its research network is manned by a scientific cadre of about 20 PhDs, in addition to the supporting staff.

Shriram Bioseed is also among the few, if not the only one, private companies which is receiving grants from the Department of Science and Technology for conducting research. This grant is meant especially for producing seeds that will enable the crops to withstand stresses like salinity and drought.

Beginning with the production and marketing of seeds of hybrid corn, the company now has hybrids of almost all field crops, including cotton, and some vegetables, notably ladyfinger and tomato. While Shriram Bioseed was earlier incorporating Monsanto’s Bt gene (for lending pest resistance to crops) into its own hybrids, it is now doing original research as well. Monsanto has also permitted it to sell Bt-cotton seed in Philippines.

Among the notable recent breakthroughs made by the R&D wing of the company is the development of a Basmati hybrid which is expected to be ready for commercialisation in about 2 years. Besides, its new paddy hybrid, which will be suitable for cultivation in the southern rice belt, will also be ready in two years.

The ladyfinger hybrid, introduced last year, has been well received by the farmers. “There is a huge demand of about 50 tonnes of its seed this year which the company is finding difficult to meet. Efforts are underway to multiply these seeds”, says Vikram Shriram.

However, like multinational biotechnology companies involved in research and commercialisation of GM seeds, Shriram Bioseed is also up against certain odds that are far from conducive for big investment in R&D. The cumbersome procedure of granting official approval to GM seeds, which takes an inordinately long time, running into years, and arbitrarily determined ceilings on the prices of the GM seeds developed at huge costs, act as deterrents for entrepreneurs to put money into such research.

Even those multinational corporations which can afford to wait for getting returns on their investments often get frustrated with the obstructive Indian biotech approval regime. For the upcoming Indian companies, it acts as a greater disincentive. Shriram Bioseed, though not put off, is also treading cautiously on the GM research front even while going full steam ahead on other R&D fronts. It is, therefore, time for the government to sit up and address such issues to encourage agricultural R&D in the private sector.  

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First Published: Tue, October 20 2009. 00:54 IST