Application of biotechnology in Indian agriculture gained prominence with the cultivation of transgenic BT cotton crop in 2002. Since then, India has taken the lead in exploring the potential of biotechnology on various fronts. The biotechnology programme in agriculture includes molecular mapping of genes of important plants, marker genes for selection of quality traits, development of transgenic crops, tissue culture for plant propagation, bio-fertilisers, bio-pesticides, vermicomposting, biodegradation of wastes and toxic substances and mushroom production. With regard to transgenic crops, the objectives of breeding new genetically modified crops were, to increase crop yield, to improve product quality, to increase nutritional values, reduce biotic stress, build tolerance to abiotic stress such as drought, frost, heat, salinity, herbicide and to produce plant-based pharmaceuticals.
Genetically modified crops
When the genetically modified BT hybrid cotton was introduced in 2002, 55,000 farmers cultivated it on 30,000 ha (Clive, 2011). There was an initial setback because of certain concerns such as low yield, non-resistance against sucking pests and high cost of inputs. With the rectification of these problems, BT cotton was widely accepted across the country. In 2014, 7.5 million farmers were engaged in cultivation of BT Cotton on 11.6 million ha, covering 96 per cent of the total area under cotton production. Over 1100 varieties were used and more than 50 per cent of the farmers were small land holders (USDA 2014). Indian cotton production increased from 13 million bales in 2002 to 40 million bales in 2014 enhancing the income of farmers from 300 to 400 per cent (Chopra & Kamma 2015). With the cultivation of BT cotton, BT cotton seed oil and BT cotton seed cakes have entered the food chain in India. In 2007, the Government of India allowed the import of glyphosate tolerant genetically modified soybean oil and canola oil to meet the growing demand for edible oils. Presently, India ranks fourth among genetically modified crop producing countries in the world.
Despite phenomenal progress in genetically modified cotton production, India has been very hesitant in introducing other genetically modified crops, mainly due to failure to exhibit resistance against all pests, low crop yield, high cost of seeds, heavy dependence on seed companies, lack of mechanism to monitor safety measures and assess risk, inadequate bio-safety studies, monopoly of a few multi national companies and lack of transparency. However, with National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government coming to power in 2014, 11 new crops have been approved for field trials (USDA, 2014). These include corn, rice, mustard, wheat, sugarcane, groundnut, brinjal, okra, cabbage, cauliflower and tomato for insect resistance, herbicide tolerance, stress resistance, drought resistance, enrichment of nutrients, vitamin, sugar, proteins, etc (GoI, 2015 ).
A number of public and private research institutions have taken up studies on identification of marker-assisted genes, development of new transgenic crops and varieties. It is also important to note that there are alternative technologies to incorporate genes of positive trait using marker gene without genetic engineering. Preference should be given to such varieties.
Tissue culture is another important programme becoming popular and commercially viable in India for rapid propagation of superior plants, elimination of viral diseases, germplasm storage, inducing desirable, heritable changes, incorporating potentially useful genes, somatic hybridisation and regeneration of transgenic plants through transfer of genes into protoplasts. Presently, India is producing over 190 crore plantlets every year particularly for cultivating horticulture crops like banana, strawberry, cardamom, sugarcane, ornamentals, aromatic, medicinal and forestry crops. Tissue cultured plants are very well accepted by small farmers due to assured quality and timely guidance to adopt good production practices.
Biofertilisers and Biopesticides
Use of biofertilisers and biopesticides are also becoming popular during the last two decades. During 2012-13, over 0.5 million tonnes of biofertilisers were produced while the potential is 2.5 million tonnes a year. Presently, the biofertilisers under commercial production are Rhizobium, Azotobacter, Azospirillum, Herbspirillum, Azolla and Blue Green Algae species for nitrogen fixing, Pseudomonas and Bacillus species for phosphate solubilisation, Frateuria species for potash solubilisation and Vesicular Arbuscular Mycorrhizae (VAM) for micro-nutrient supply (Mazid & Khan, 2014).
Commercial production of biopesticides has also been undertaken by the private sector for crop protection. This includes biofungicides, bactericides, bioinsecticides and bionematicides. These products have been well accepted by farmers because of their low cost, easy availability and safety, while ensuring effective control.
Biotechnology for animal husbandry
Use of frozen semen for breeding cattle and buffaloes since mid 1970’s has already ushered in a White Revolution in India. Indeed, BAIF was the leader in taking this technology to small farmers across the country. India has been successful in clonal propagation of buffaloes. However, the major research focus is on genomic studies of Indian cattle and buffaloes to identify genes for economic traits such as heat/cold tolerance, disease resistance, calving interval, milk yield, high protein and fat, etc. and marker added selection for productivity enhancement. Use of embryos for bull production, Karyotyping for screening of cattle against genetic disorders and use of sexed semen for producing female milch animals are the other initiatives in animal production, which are likely to make a significant impact on the earnings of small farmers. Selection of thermo-stable microbial strains for production of efficient diagnostics and vaccines is another area of priority. Technologies have been developed for efficient recycling of dung and bio-waste through vermicomposting and biogas production using efficient microbes, which benefit small farmers who represent 87 per cent of land holders in India.
Studies on identification and introduction of bacteria which can suppress methane production in rumen, to improve feed efficiency, while reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, need greater attention.
Biotechnology sector in India is generating an annual income of 4 billion USD with agricultural biotechnology having a share of 14 per cent. With the change in the policy to grow genetically modified crops, agricultural biotechnology is bound to have a major role in food security and rural prosperity in India. It is crucial to develop critical infrastructure to facilitate backward and forward linkages and build the capacity of the farmers to have access to appropriate technology and market information systems.
Chopra, P & Kamma, A. (2015). Genetically Modified Crops in India: The Current Status Of GM Crops in India. Genetic Frenetics. Retrieved from: http://www.paraschopra.com/publications/gm/gm.pdf.
Govt. of India, (2015), Annual Report 2014-15, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, 47-48.
James, Clive. (2011). Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: (Brief No. 43) ISAAA: Ithaca, NY.
Mazid, M., & Khan, T. A. (2014). Future of Bio-fertilizers in Indian Agriculture: An Overview. International Journal of Agricultural and Food Research. 3(3), 10-13.
USDA. (2014) India Agricultural Biotechnology Annual. USDA Foreign Agricultural Report in 4059. Global Agricultural Information Network.