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Checkbiotech: Gene revolution reaches the poorest farmers in India
Posted by: DR. RAUPP ; madora (IP Logged)
Date: March 01, 2005 06:35AM ; ;

It?s the news they have all been waiting for. After years of living under
the threat of another devastating epidemic of downy mildew, a disease
similar to that which caused the Irish potato famine, India?s poorest
farmers have been offered a lifeline in the form of a new disease-resistant
hybrid. The hybrid has been produced in record time using modern
biotechnology techniques, February 2005.

In February 2005, India released its first hybrid using modern DNA
techniques. ?This is something new and something very big? stated Professor
Witcombe, from the University of Wales, Bangor who manages the research
programme ?it has taken an international team of scientists more than a
decade of hard work to produce this new hybrid and I believe it marks the
beginning of a revolution in pearl millet breeding.?

The fact that revolutionary DNA techniques have been used to improve a crop
that is grown only by the poorest farmers in India and Africa is nothing
short of remarkable. Until now agricultural biotechnology has been driven
almost exclusively by the private sector for farmers in the developed world.
?We want to change all that and give the poorest farmers a real chance of
benefiting from the first products of this new Gene Revolution? says Tom
Hash, a plant breeder from ICRISAT, a member of the research team.

The crop in question is pearl millet; know as the poor man?s crop because it
grows in the hottest, driest places where no other crop can survive. Tens of
millions of poor people depend on its grain to eat and its leaves and stems
to feed to their animals. More than half of the world?s pearl millet is
grown in India where it seems to survive almost anything ? anything that is,
except downy mildew. This devastating disease can destroy up to one third of
the crop and worryingly the most popular pearl millet hybrid grown in India
is now showing signs of susceptibility to the disease. If the disease hits
the crop in epidemic proportions then farmers are looking at losses in grain
yield worth at least US$ 8 million.

A solution was needed and needed quick. Traditional plant breeding for
resistant hybrids can be a cumbersome and slow process so scientists turned
to biotechnology for answers. The UK Department for International
Development funded an international team of scientists to develop the tools
to read the genetic sequence of pearl millet. With the help of the genetic
map, scientists were able to identify the genes required for resistance to
downy mildew. Resistant genes were taken from pearl millet grown in Africa
and India and introduced into one of the parents of the new hybrid. No
foreign genes were introduced and the hybrid was produced naturally so the
product was the same as that of traditional breeding ? not a GMO.

?The application of biotechnology has produced this new hybrid in a third of
the time usually required and so has given us a head-start in the fight
against the disease? says Witcombe. ?downy mildew is a slippery customer
that eventually manages to get past our defences. It?s the battle we?ve won
but not the war?

More Information on:
Can India afford to grow transgenic crops?

An assessment done by the Economic Survey 2004-05 on the status and future
of agriexports in India has raised a pertinent question as to whether India
can afford to grow transgenic crops, February 2005 by Ashok B Sharma.

Referring particularly to the exports of oil meals from India, the survey
said that its growth has increased and sustained on account of its ?non-GM

India has not yet approved any genetically modified (GM) oilseed crop for
cultivation. GM mustard seed varieties, which were developed by PrvoAgro,
were not approved by the regulatory authority.

The Economic Survey, which is an annual report prepared by a team of experts
in the government, said: ?Indian oil meals command a premium because of
their non-GM nature.?

It noted that the demand for Indian oil meals is increasing as the world
market is flooded with oil meals of GM oil seeds.

The survey said that the export of oil meals gained substantially both in
terms of volume and share during 2002-03. The growth was also sustained
during the first half of 2004-05, because of the increasing demand for
Indian oil meals in the world market. Oil meals are used as poultry and
cattle feed.

Exports of oil meals increased phenomenally from 18,96,521 tonne in fiscal
2002-03 to 33,23,025 tonne in fiscal 2003-04. Even in the first nine months
of the fiscal 2004-05, the exports of oil meals marked an increase.

India imports a substantial quantity of vegetable oils to meet domestic
needs. The exports of oil meals partly offsets the foreign exchange outgo on
account of imports of vegetable oils.

In the first six months of the fiscal year 2004-05, imports of vegetable
oils (for edible purpose) was valued at $1,235.60 million, consisting of
69.10% of the total agricultural imports.

Generally, annual imports of edible oils are to the tune of $1,800 odd
million and constitute around 72% of the total agricultural imports.

Comparatively, exports of oil meals in the first six months of the 2004-05
fiscal year beginning April, 2004 was $298.40 million, constituting 8.5% of
the total agricultural exports.

In 2003-04, exports of oil meals was to the tune of $728.70 million,
constituting 9.7% of total agricultural exports.

The vegetable oil industry has estimated imports of edible oils as per each
oil year, which begins from November 1. According to industry data,
43,96,587 tonne of vegetable oils (for edible purpose) was imported in the
oil year 2003-04. Imports of non-edible oils was 2,35,163 tonne.

In the first two months of the current oil year 2004-05, the imports have
shot up to 6,29,731 tonne as compared to 5,15,143 tonne in the first two
months of the previous oil year.

According to industry data, exports of oil meals increased phenomenally from
18,96,521 tonne in fiscal 2002-03 to 33,23,025 tonne in fiscal 2003-04. In
the first nine months of the fiscal 2004-05, the exports of oil meals also
marked an increase.

The exports of oil meals in the period April 2004 to December 2004 was
1,948.631 tonne as compared to 1,612,350 tonne in the first nine months of
the previous fiscal year.

Indian oil meals are generally exported to Korea, Singapore, Thailand,
Malaysia, China, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, The Philippines, Taiwan, Sri
Lanka, Mauritius, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kenya, Egypt, Dammam, UAE, Baharain,
Oman, Abu Dhabi, Jebel Ali, Kuwait, Iran, Iraq and Sharjah.

Apart from these traditional export destinations, Indian oil meals have
found their way into the European Union, on account of the non-GM character.

Italy has emerged as one of the main importers of Indian oil meals. Indian
oil meals are also re-exported to Europe from Abu Dhabi (in Dubai) and
Singapore. The European Union has recently allowed imports of two varieties
of transgenic corn, but its acceptance by the public is very low.


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