Awareness session on need for agri-biotechnology in Maharashtra

Organized by the ABLE-AG, this awareness campaign suggested that introduction of biotech pulses and oil seeds could play a significant role in meeting increasing demands of the state

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Nagpur: The Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises – Agriculture focus Group (ABLE-AG) on June 7, 2016 organised an awareness session on need for Agri-biotechnology in Maharashtra at Nagpur.

Dr C D Mayee, Former Chairman Agricultural Scientists Recruitment Board, New Delhi & Parbhani Director, Central Institute for Cotton Research was the prominent scientist who addressed the audience. He was accompanied by Dr Shivendra Bajaj, Executive Director, ABLE-AG. They were joined by a progressive farmer from the area Yavatmal, Maharashtra who has been growing Bt Cotton on 45 acres out of his 75 acres farm for the past 13 years. Mr Vijay Niwal was there to share his perspectives on the challenges faced by farmers in the state.

The three speakers urged the government to introduce progressive farm technology interventions in the state that would also include the introducing of biotech crops like maize, pulses and oilseeds and drought-resistant variants of sugarcane and rice. Many such seed technologies, having been developed by Indian researchers working across agricultural universities, government funded agri-research institutions and private seed companies are currently awaiting field trials across the country. The panel felt that hastening field trials and begin the regulatory process of testing these various crops including drought resistant seeds in real-world conditions is critical to counter the climate change challenges faced by farmers.

The event emphasized on the needs to allow pending field-trials of GM crops with regards to technology interventions in agriculture in the state.

Addressing the audience at the session, Dr C D Mayee, Former Chairman Agricultural Scientists Recruitment Board, New Delhi and Parbhani Director, Central Institute for Cotton Research said, “The biggest cause of farm-distress in Maharashtra today is the problem of depleting ground-water that is adversely hampering farmer incomes and increasingly putting them in a deeper spiral of debt, despair and poverty. To ensure food security for the nation technological interventions in agriculture is critical. For a drought hit state like Maharashtra, it is essential to curtail farmer distress by introducing different GM as well as non GM crop varieties. Insect resistant, drought resistant and high yield variants of crops those can withstand high temperatures, insect attack and need reduced irrigation should be considered along with crops with high herbicide tolerance and nitrogen use efficiency in crops such as rice, pulses, oilseeds and maize.”

Speaking on the issue of the pending field trials of GM crops in Maharashtra, Dr Shivendra Bajaj, Executive Director, Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises – Agriculture Group said, “Maharashtra’s focus now needs to be ‘more crop per drop’. There has to be a concerted effort to drive agricultural growth through technology interventions. Maharashtra has several GM crops where field trials are pending including rice, cotton, pulses, oilseeds, maize and others. With the maximum number of agriculture universities in comparison to other states, Maharashtra can be the innovation powerhouse with regards to developing and adopting new approaches and technologies for India’s farming community.”

Sugarcane – which is grown on 4 per cent of the state’s farms by approximately 1.1 million farmers consumes 70 per cent of water available for irrigation. In contrast, about 10 million jowar (sorghum), pulses and oilseeds farmers get no more than 10 per cent of irrigation water. Sugarcane is the only crop in Maharashtra which is wholly irrigated. Irrigation water is available for no more than 9 per cent of pulses and 4 per cent of oilseeds. However Sugarcane’s 1.1 million farmers use 18.7 million litres irrigated water per hectare thereby consuming 18,000 million cubic meters (MCM) or nine times the water used for jowar, oilseeds and pulses annually across the state (2.2 million litres per hectare or 2000 MCM of water).

Rice is the second important crop grown in Maharashtra and for every kilogram of rice grown in different parts of the state; a farmer uses approximately 3145 litres of water. The irrigation water used by farmers to produce 3 million tonnes of rice (the production in 2015-16) would therefore have been in the region of 9.4 billion cubic litres (1 cubic litre = 1000 litres).

At least 25% of this amount or 2.3 billion cubic litres of water can be saved if farmers switched to drought tolerant rice. Newer variants of GM as well as non-GM rice currently being tested internationally claim to reduce irrigation needs by up to 60%.

Pulses and Oilseeds are key crops grown in Maharashtra which lacks self-sufficiency.  Agricultural biotechnology can play a significant role to produce sufficient volume of pulses and oilseeds to meet our increasing domestic demand. Pulses are majorly attacked by insects like moths. Therefore, introduction of insect resistance pulses will play a significant role in increasing production thereby bridging the production gap currently prevailing in the country. It is remarkable that India also imports edible oil worth INR 60,000 crore. Increase in production of oilseed crops such as mustard and soybean through biotechnology in the state can increase the edible oil production in the state thereby reducing our edible oil imports in the country and resulting insignificant savings of foreign exchange worth Rs 4000 crore.

Adding to the discussion, Mr Vijay Niwal said, “Maharashtra is in the middle of a water crisis that deeply affects farmers and their families. We work 7 days a week relying primarily on nature’s bounty to help our crops grow. Our request to the government is to allow farmers access to modern farm technologies that mitigate some of the challenges we face. Growing of Bt cotton has been a profitable business for us and thus introduction of other biotech crops can make a difference in our farming.”

Falling groundwater levels

With over 278 out of the 355 talukas in the state witnessing deficient rainfall and ground water levels depleting in most regions, sugarcane, one of Maharashtra’s highest yield crops was among the hardest hit. Sugarcane output decreased by 21 % according to the Economic Survey Report. Overall food grain production dropped 22 % drop for both kharif and rabi crops. Similarly the production of cereals decreased by 24 % and pulses by 11 % in 2015-16 respectively.

 GM crops mitigating climate change

Increasing efficiency of water usage will have a major impact on conservation and availability of water globally. Seventy percent of fresh water is currently used by agriculture, and this is obviously not sustainable in the future as India’s population increases to over 1.7 billion by 2050. At the same time, droughts, floods, and temperature changes are predicted to become more prevalent and more severe as we face the new challenges associated with climate change, and hence, there will be a need for faster crop improvement programs to develop varieties and hybrids that are well adapted to more rapid changes in climatic conditions.Drought tolerance is expected to have a major impact on more sustainable cropping systems, particularly in developing countries such as India, where drought will likely be more prevalent and severe than industrial countries.