In the 21st century, the Indian agriculture needs to be revitalized in order to face the daunting challenge of climate change alongside with the persisting malnutrition and emerging pests and diseases. Owing to the fact that mapping and breeding for complex traits like yield under stress, disease resistance etc., is challenging by conventional means (due to lack of phenotype markers & impact of environment), there is an unequivocal need for integrating advanced technologies in agriculture, whilst biotechnology aided cultivation is need of the hour, especially for developing countries like India, to sustain the food production. Many scientists in India and around the world are looking to the potential of genetically engineered crops. In this issue, we will try to pull out few success stories that have come through crop biotechnology across the globe.
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First Vegetable Biotech Crop in India:
Brinjal (Egg plant) is often described as poor man’s vegetable in India because of its popularity among low income consumers and small farmers. Brinjal is prone to attack by a destructive pest called fruit and shoot borer (FSB) and damages about 95% of the fruit. Farmers tend to over spray insecticides to counter the threat of FSB, which leads to high pesticide residues in vegetables and causes detrimental side effects to the environment. Although efforts have been made to develop FSB resistant cultivars through conventional breeding, these yielded limited success. In 2000, the scientists from Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco), an Indian seed company developed a FSB resistant Brinjal variety or Bt Brinjal incorporating a gene from soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), this gene expresses a crystal protein which binds to insect gut wall and kills the larvae within few days.
Many anti-GMO activists questioned the safety of Bt Brinjal, but ever since its development in 2000 the crop has undergone rigorous scientific assessment of its food safety including toxicity and allergenicity, environmental safety and biodiversity. The results from these studies proved Bt Brinjal to be absolutely safe, equivalent to its non Bt counterpart. In 2009, Genetic Engineering Approval committee recommended the release of Bt Brinjal for the benefit of farmers and consumers. This would decrease insecticide input for Brinjal as much as 80% and increase the income of small farmers. In 2010, after a public outcry of NGO’s and anti-GMO activists, moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal was passed which would remain until consensus is reached. The adjoining neighbor of India, Bangladesh approved and released Bt Brinjal in 2013. Indian daily Business Standard reported Bangladeshi farmers are reaping the benefits from Bt Brinjal.
Golden Rice: Savior of Humanity
World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that about 124 million people suffer from Vitamin A deficiency and WHO report from 2009 indicates 85% of the total south Asian children with Xerophthalmia (medical condition in which the eye fails to produce tears caused by Vitamin A deficiency) live in India. Rice being the staple food for more than half of the world population, two humanitarian scientists Dr. Ingo Potrykus and Dr. Peter Beyer came up with an idea to engineer rice plants containing Vitamin A, precursor beta-carotene. Eight long years of research yielded Vitamin A enriched rice which made anti-GMO activists a stumbling block to protest. The addition of beta-carotene gives golden color to the rice hence it is referred to as ‘Golden Rice’ and provides enough nutrients to prevent vitamin A deficiency and blindness. The American Society of Nutrition suggests golden rice could probably supply 50% of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of vitamin from a modest amount. Perhaps one cup of golden rice per day can save millions of children a year from Vitamin A deficiency. It doesn’t end here with vitamin A, as other micro nutrients can also be fortified in food by genetic modification.
GM Hybrid Mustard: Hope for Oil Sustainability
Mustard is the India’s major edible oil yielding crop and third most used cooking oil but there isn’t enough supply for the growing population. In 2014-2015, India imported 14.5 million tonnes of edible oils valued at $10.5 billion. Surprisingly, the country’s average annual edible oil production is still stuck at below 7.5 million tonnes. Hence we need hybrid technology in Mustard which has been successfully demonstrated in many crops. Generally hybrids are produced by crossing two genetically diverse individuals from the same species. But there is no natural hybridization system in mustard plant because the male and female reproductive organs are present in the same flower. It makes the plant naturally self-pollinated and to an extent the stamen (male) from one plant cannot fertilize the egg cell of other, it restricts development of hybrids.
A team of scientists from Delhi University led by Dr. Deepak Pental developed a viable hybridization system in mustard by GM technology and developed a GM hybrid DMH- 11. GM mustard hybrid is expected to produce 25-30% more yield than normal high yielding varieties grown in the country. Therefore, adoption of GM hybrid mustard improves the sustainability of edible oil and reduces the dependence on imported oil.
Bt cotton has proved to be a great success in India but pursuing the commercialization of GM food crops remains blocked due to unsubstantiated fears propagated by anti GMO activists. We strongly believe Indian people require science based solutions and not ideological based solutions for their food needs.
-By Godwin James, Ram Sankar. C, Nandha Kumar. S and Ragavendran Abbai. Biotechnology graduates currently pursuing post graduate in their field.