After the success of genetically modified cotton in India, Monsanto is interested in extending its product line to include corn (maize), rice, wheat and vegetables such as tomato, okra and pepper.
The life-science major is already testing modified corn in India. It is the first season for the grain. India produces close to 20 million tonnes of the coarse cereal; but yields are typically less than two tonnes a hectare.
“We are interested in corn. I expect Indian farmers to move from rice to corn as rice uses a lot of water. Our technology will help reduce water usage and increase yield on less land,” Dr Robb Fraley, Monsanto Chief Technology Officer (CTO), told a small group of Indian journalists at the Farm Progress Show and Monsanto Technology Tour held here recently.
Water will be a serious constraint and, therefore, crops will be vulnerable to greater risk, he said, adding that modified corn being tested is animal feed.
Focus on wheat
Another foodgrain of interest to the company is wheat. Monsanto recently made a tech investment in wheat to research new traits that will help farmers improve yields and reduce input resources, Dr Fraley said. India is world’s second largest wheat producer (75-77 million tonnes) after China.
Explaining the rationale behind interest in grains such as corn and wheat, the CTO who is credited with guiding the company’s technology forays said, “Lifestyles (in India) are changing with income increases and population pressure. As grain demand increases sharply, our technology will help (the country produce more).”
It is known that Indian wheat and maize are at the limit of heat tolerance. Both crops are at risk of yield loss, if global warming causes average temperatures to rise.
Asked to comment on the role of regulator in the introduction of agricultural bio-technology products in the country, Dr Fraley remarked that although India has taken a cautious approach to regulation of such products, at the same time it has taken a science-based approach. “Indian regulatory process decision is made on fair science basis,” he asserted.
In India, Monsanto works closely with the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco). India’s first and only commercialised GM crop so far is Bt Cotton. New traits are likely to be introduced. “India’s cotton production is drought-sensitive. So, we are examining drought-resistance ones,” he revealed.
Bt Cotton is a huge success story as far as India is concerned. After introduction of the tech seed in 2002, Indian output has expanded by nearly 75 per cent to about 300 lakh bales, pushing the country ahead of the US to be ranked as the world’s second largest producer. Also, India has turned a net exporter of cotton in the last three years.
Talking about the recent advances in crop production, Dr Fraley said the refuge area has been reduced to 5 per cent which allows planting of more area to the modified crop. The company was experimenting with what it called “refuge in a bag” technology whereby, a refuge will be mixed into every bag (of seed).
Over 100 trials are currently going on, it was revealed.
Threat to biodiversity
When queried about the alleged threat to bio-diversity, the CTO explained that bio-tech crops have been planted for about 13 years on hundreds of millions acres in 25 countries, but no issues have been reported or brought forward.
“I am confident the same conclusion will be drawn in India,” he added.