12th Dr. B.P.Pal Memorial Lecture

Harnessing Genic Power to enhance Agricultural Productivity, Profitability and Resource Use Efficiency

Mangala Rai

Secretary, (DARE) & Director General, I.C.A.R.

Krishi Bhawan, New Delhi

Dr S. Nagarajan, Director, IARI, Dr B.S. Parmar, Joint Director (Research), IARI, distinguished guests, fellow scientists, colleagues, friends, ladies and Gentlemen!

I feel honoured to be invited to deliver the 12th Dr B.P. Pal Memorial lecture and wish to thank the IARI authorities for giving me this opportunity to be here today morning share some of my thoughts on the importance of genetic resources in strengthening India’s agricultural.

2. Late Dr Benjamin Peary Pal, as we all know him as the first Director General of reorganized ICAR in 1965, began his research career at IARI in 1933 and became its Director in 1950. Dr Pal popularly known for his pioneering work on rose improvement where he developed more than 40 varieties. He developed New Pusa series wheat varieties - NP 700 and NP 800 possessing resistance to rust. His variety NP 809 released in 1954 showed resistance to all three types of rust and it was a big step forward in increasing wheat production. Because of his initial efforts in the reorganized ICAR, the Council has been able to move and move forward through and through. Even the origin of the Green Revolution can be traced to his researches and plans.

3. Late Dr B.P.Pal’s 100th birthday fell on 26th May, 2005 and in this centenary year of IARI, which also happens to be the 100th year of Dr Pal, I pay my tributes this great Indian scientist, a legend and a role model for the country’s agricultural scientific fraternity.

4. In the classical concept of ‘search for new genes’, given by Dr B.P.Pal as early as in the 1940s, he had also outlined a roadmap to discover or introduce new genes and to devise new ways to combine them with old genes. His foresight and wisdom led to creation of a Plant Exploration and Collection Unit in 1946 in the Division of Botany, IARI, which has grown to an Independent ICAR Bureau in 1976, the NBPGR, that now holds the 4th largest collection in the world. Elsewhere, the developments in the area of biotechnology, since the late 1980’s, have added to the knowledge and also provided new tools and ways to harness genes from across the taxa for specific traits. In fact due to new tools and techniques usable variability has increased enormously at global lvel. The deep interest of Dr B.P.Pal in the genetic resources and gene power, and commemoration of this 12th memorial lecture with his birth centenary have inspired me to select a theme to highlight the importance of exploring new genes and using these genes for the development and growth of agriculture in the years ahead.

5. The success story India’s Green Revolution is well established and owes much to the introduction and adaptation of genetically improved varieties of rice and wheat. The discovery and successful transfer of dwarfing genes from Norin 10 in wheat and DGWG in rice had opened a new chapter in the history of global agriculture. The new varieties supported by other inputs had resulted in a multifold increase in foodgrain production; saved millions of lives from starvation; provided sustainability to national food security; and above all, earned a pride for the nation. A major battle against hunger was thus won but the war continues. We cannot think of a national security without food security and hence I consider for one billion plus people food security as an integral part of the National security.

6. The projections indicate that our population will be 1.5 billion by 2050. Rising population and per capita income are obviously pushing up the food demand, which needs to be met through enhanced productivity per unit area, input, time and energy. At the same time, issues of decreasing factor productivity and improving resource use efficiency have emerged. If we have to compete in terms cost and quality globally, conservation and judicious utilization of prime natural resources particularly water, soil and genetic resources will be crucial for competitive growth and sustainability of the system.

7. The global estimates for biodiversity indicate occurrence of about 13-14 million species, including one million species each of fungi and bacteria. At present nearly 1.7 million species have been described. The plant species number is around 2.5 lakh of which about 3,000 plant species have been utilized by human beings. Most of our needs are being met by just 30 species, which provide for 90 percent of world’s food. Search is continuously going on to find newer sources of food, fodder, fuel and fibre. More recently there is a strong emphasis on the use of medicines and cosmetics of natural origin. The demand for biofuels, and the increasing resource degradation have also triggered the search for new sources of raw materials.

8. India fortunately is endowed with a wide range of agro-climatic conditions extending from wettest areas in the east to extremely arid areas in the west and temperate climate in the north to humid and coastal areas in the south. The summer and winter rainy seasons coincide with the life cycle of chief agricultural crops. There also exist wide range of soils, which support even more diverse range of life forms - floral, faunal and microbial, which has placed India in the list of the 12 mega-centres of biodiversity in the world. There are about 45,000 species of higher plants. The number of endemic species is estimated to be close to 3470 in Himalayas, 2000 in peninsular India and 240 in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It is reported that the Indian gene centre has about 4000 species of medicinal value, 500 fibre yielding species, 100 aromatic and essential oil yielding species, and 400 fodder yielding species. The Western Ghats and the northeastern India are also two of the 25 hotspots of biodiversity in the world. India also serves as a transition zone of three bio-geographic regions i.e Indo-Malayan, Eurasian and Afro-Asian. The country accounts for 7-8 percent of the recorded species. Besides the plant species about 114 breeds of domesticated animals are also found here. This rich wealth of biodiversity has evolved over the millennia through evolutionary processes such as selection, mutation, recombination, genetic drift and migration. We must conserve it for sustainable use and benefit of posterity.

9. The quest for new genes is also closely linked to the 10,000 years’ long history of agriculture. Over the years, nature has brought about hybridization among the closely related as well as some of the distantly related species. The development of tetraploid and hexaploid wheat are well known examples of such hybridization whereas cross between Secale cereale (rye) and Triticum aestivum (wheat) is an example of intentional cross. In case of rice only two species i.e Oryza sativa and O. glaberrima are pre-dominantly cultivated but their wild and uncultivated species continue to be the source of genes for improved rice varieties. The gene (Gsv 1) in rice for resistance to grassy stunt virus was transferred from O.nivara, likewise O. officinalis was the source for the genes to develop resistance to brown plant hopper and white-backed plant hopper. Other important genes introgressed from wild species of rice into the cultivated species include genes for tolerance to drought from O. glabeerrima, resistance to rice tungro virus from O. latifolia, and traits of CMS, resistance to drought and high yield coming from O.rufipogon, and resistance to Yellow stem borer (YSB) being introgressed from O. ridleyi.

10. Wheat is the other most important staple cereal alongwith rice and probably the earliest cultivated. The rust disease has caused enormous damage to the wheat crop and the agricultural scientists are engaged the world over in bringing varietal improvement of wheat through transfer of genes that would impart rust resistance. The genes transgressed in wheat for resistance to black rust and brown rust has come from Aegilops speltoids and A. elongatum. The research efforts directed towards achieving wheat varieties with higher yield potential, improved nutritional quality, biotic and abiotic resistance have resulted in overall enhancement of wheat germplasm. Similarly, introgression of genes from two close wild relatives of maize, Tripascum and Zea mexicana, have resulted in higher yields in maize. The ‘nobilization’ of cane is well-established case of varietal improvement by harnessing the plant genetic resources. Practically every cultivated crop, field or horticultural, has got some useful quality traits through intergeneric or interspecific crossing. With the cereal genomics moving forward why cannot we insulate our wheat against rust as there is no rust in rice.

11. There is a little doubt that to sustain the productivity and production achieved through convention means; also to meet new, diverse and complex challenges that lie ahead of us and also to avail the technological breakthroughs that are now available for commercial use, so as to maintain comfortable position on food and nutritional fronts, agricultural research priorities and strategies will have to be revisited and new system wide system approaches will have to be developed and adopted. The growth rate of agricultural productivity witnessed during the decades of 1970s and 1980’s has now declined and we need to intensify our efforts to enhance the rate of genetic upgradation in crops and animal species. We will have to look for newer genes, methodologies to transfer them across the living organisms and at a much faster rate so that the variety or breed developed with the required new trait in the already well adapted background can be transferred to the field without much loss of precious time.

12. The Green Revolution of 1960’s rallied around the input responsive, high yielding varieties grown in the early phase under near monocultures in traditionally agricultural and fertile areas. Since then, there has been significant resource degradation, culminating in further production constraints. To meet these new challenges, it will be more rewarding if the power of hitherto untapped genes is harnessed against such constraints as the resource degradation and pest-weed complexes, etc. Hence, the need is to produce crops with high inputs use efficiency, improvement in nutritional quality, and stability in storage. At the same time, focus will have to be made on the incorporation of traits like tolerance to various biotic and abiotic stresses for increasing agricultural productivity and profitability in rainfed and marginal environments.

13. Biotechnology offers several advantages over classical breeding, in terms of precision, technology gestation period, and gene transfer for specific traits even from the unrelated organisms. The conventional approach of breeding crops by itself may not be able to deliver the goods in the required time frame given the magnitude and urgency to feed the growing millions. In the context of a holistic agricultural development and ensuring household food security, role of biotechnology is going to be essentially much more important and vital than ever before. Be it for harnessing uncommon opportunities for the improvement in genetic potential of plants or animals; be it by the introduction of gene or genes that regulate a specific trait or their deletion; and so on. The conventional breeding methods will have to be complemented by an array of biotechnological tools and in a variety of ways such as tissue culture or DNA fingerprinting or molecular breeding or genomics or diagnostics or development of transgenics, etc. Bioprospecting will have to essentially lay the foundation for effective mining and transfer of genes for specific traits. Saving on precious time and even resources is likely to become an added advantage in the changed scenario. Potential benefits could be in form of development of crops species and animal breeds that are more resistant to biotic and abiotic stresses, possess enhanced nutritional level, enhanced shelf-life of farm produce, and efficient conversion of organic waste into biofuels, etc.

14. There could be myriad positive implications of genomics with respect to food, nutrition and environmental security of the nation. With these techniques genes from organism like bacteria, viruses or even animal may be transferred into plants to develop genetically modified plants having exclusively changed manifestation. The advent of biotechnology has brought the whole living world into a common gene pool. The modern technology has enabled us to realize free flow of genes across the biological world

. In this scenario, the modern day Bio- and Information technologies will serve as the launch vehicles. India made a modest but determined beginning in plant genomics as global partner in the International Rice Genome Sequencing Project. Significant contributions have been made in the gene sequencing and all the targets were achieved. However, the further challenge is to characterize some focused genes from the documented sequences and harness the much-needed genes for traits like drought tolerance, salinity tolerance, etc., for effective use of the research results. In this endeavour we have provided Rs 12 crores exclusively for the purpose for 2 years.

15. The country although has a juvenile experience in the area of biotechnology based product development in both, agricultural and non-agricultural sectors, yet we have already given a serious attention to the requisite building up of institutional capacity and human resource development. There is, nevertheless, long way to go with respect to application of biotechnology in general and transgenics, genomics and bioprospecting in particular.

16. Application of genic power in hybrid technology development is yet another area that is sure to give productive, efficient output and outcome. Development of male sterility systems, their maintainers and restorers can be ably guided through the application of suitable genes such as the barnase and barstar system in the Brassicas. Besides incorporation of alternate alleles in the inbred lines is sure to boost the expression of specific traits through heterotic effects. It could also impart resilience in crop and livestock species in harsh and fragile ecosystems. Since conventional hybrid breeding methods have certain limitations, biotechnological tools will have to be employed for hybrid technology to achieve the targetted genetic improvement through facilitated use of desirable genes across plants, animals, fish and microorganisms.

17. Microorganisms in the rhizosphere are known to be synergistic to crops since long. These have been essentially seen as the sustainability supporting components of traditional/biodynamic/organic agriculture in the conventional mode. But with the developments in genomics and gene transfer through biotechnology, their relevance and role has further increased manifolds. The agriculturally important microbes are increasingly seen to be much more dynamic and focused ‘gene resource’ for developing transgenics to increase productivity and quality, and incorporating resistance to biotic/abiotic stress factors in the plants and livestock. The countless microorganisms of agricultural importance hail from several taxa, such as, bacteria, actinomycetes, blue green algae (BGA), fungi, including vesicular arbuscular mycorrhizae (VAM), and viruses. They thrive in a variety of habitats/systems including soils, living body systems and dead/decayed matter, marine, snow bound mountains and desert systems, polluted land and water bodies, etc. Their genetic factors underlying the differential adaptability to such diverse habitats/systems indicate invaluable treasure of genes for the benefit of agriculture. The sectoral importance of microorganisms in agriculture has also increased with the integration of agriculture, intellectual property and services with the world trade agreement. The developing world is keenly looking forward to harness the genic power from microorganisms through the rapid development of their institutional capacity through building up of the state of art laboratories, biosafety and other regulatory mechanisms, and human resource development.

18. Most of the chemical reactions that take place in the soil, leading to increased availability of several major and micronutrients, often have active contribution of microbes. The nitrogen-fixing bacteria, blue green algae, and phosphate solublizing bacteria are already well known to enhance availability of major nutritional elements like N and P to plants whereas the decomposer bacteria are instrumental for recycling and thereby increasing the availability of Carbon and several micronutrients from plant residues to soil. Some other microorganisms similarly contribute towards improved plant health and higher crop yield through the production of growth stimulators such as plant hormones and vitamins. Such biofertilizing and phyto-stimulating genes from microbes obviously require intensive study for their application and use in agriculture. Research efforts have to be essentially focused on prospecting and mining of the microbial genic potential for use in crop and animal improvement.

19. The first transgenic plants engineered for insect resistance in cotton, corn and soybean were released for commercial cultivation in 1996. In less than a decade (1996 to 2004), area under biotech crops has increased more than 47 times globally, from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 81.0 million hectares in 17 countries in 2004. There has been noticeable growth in four commercialized biotech crops viz. soybean, maize, cotton and canola. Among these GM crops, soybean occupied 48.4 million hectares, maize 19.3 million hectares, cotton 9.0 million hectares and canola 4.3 million hectares. Other bioengineered crops include Potato, Squash and Papaya and many more at the research scale, and the key traits bioengineered are herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, etc. The developing countries have also adopted GM crops and their area is increasing steadily. The available indications are that in coming years in addition to the agronomic traits, transgenic plants will predominantly address the aspects such as improvement of product quality involving proteins, fats, carbohydrates and important nutrients such as vitamins, minerals etc. Also, transgenic plants are going to be most sought after bioreactors for producing edible vaccines, antibodies, bioplastics, highly saturated oils for industrial use, pharmaceuticals and a number of other metabolic products/byproducts of economic importance.

20. Application of biotechnology in crop improvement programmes has started giving dividends. With Totally indigenous efforts GM potato, has been developed by incorporating AmA1 gene from the pseudocereal plant, amaranth or Ramdana. Indications are that it has more protein than normal potato, including substantial amount of the essential amino acids, lysine and methionine. Another exciting development in the offing is a GM rice called ‘golden rice’, which is genetically engineered to produce beta-carotene, a substance which the body can convert to Vitamin A. The new rice could prove effective to overcome vitamin A deficiency (VAD), a condition which afflicts millions of people in developing countries, especially children and pregnant women. This rice is a product of genes transferred from a bacterium and a flower plant (daffodil).

21. While pursuing for higher productivity levels, we need to redesign the crop and be able to add value to the farm produce so as to make agriculture more rewarding to farmers. Also, the formation of harmful substances such as aflatoxin in groundnuts, neurotoxins in khesari dal, and cyanide in tapioca, besides several undesirable elements in chickpea, sweet pea, and potato, can be prevented by the use of modern biotechnological methods. There is no end to innovating the transformations in our future crop varieties/hybrids but it is important to look for our own indigenous gene constructs and promoters so as to be self-dependent and cost-effective in the wake of strong global IPR regimes. Incidentally, the onus lies on the public sector institutions, which undertake most of the transgenic research in India.

22. Major impact of biotechnology on livestock production is likely to emanate from qualitative and quantitative improvement including digestibility in feeds and forages as well as through enhanced disease control. Use of DNA biotechnology in animal health through low cost, effective and efficient vaccines combined alongwith improved diagnostic tools has the potential to significantly contribute towards livestock insulation and enhanced production.

23. Fisheries is an upcoming agricultural sector that has demonstrated a phenomenal growth rate. The sector assumes importance in view of its scope in wide ranging inland water bodies (rice field, ponds, lakes, rivers etc.) and marine conditions as well as the industrial potential to promote diversification, processing, exports and employment generation. Biotechnology in fisheries and aquaculture represents a range of technologies that provide opportunities to increase growth rate in farmed species, improve nutrition of aquafeeds, improve fish health, help restore and protect environments, extend the range of aquatic species, and improve management and conservation of wild stocks.

24. In the course of development of GM crops, some countries have imparted deregulated status to certain transgenic plants and products thereof. The assessment methods, however, varied in different countries. As the GM crop is going to be the order of the day in near future, including in the developing countries, it will be highly important to evolve a scientific and globally acceptable system of deregulation of bio-safe ‘events’. At the same time it is important to differentiate between notification for ‘environmental safety’ and that for agronomic superiority or the ‘value for cultivation and use’ so that only good agronomic types can alone get the market approvals in the interest of national agricultural production as well as profitability.

25. The issues of bio-safety and environmental safety need to be addressed along with the promotion of biotechnological applications in agriculture. Every human activity has some or the other inherent risks. Nevertheless, it is in the interest of a better future of our coming generations that the positive side of transgenics and other GM technology is rationally harnessed. We need to be more scientifically equipped so as to make sensible decisions.

26. The area of biotechnology essentially requires strong Public-Public and Public-Private partnerships in agricultural biotechnology research efforts and also in disseminating information about the research. The relation between research institutes and industry needs to be strengthened for realizing the full potential of transgenic crops. The role of the media in enhancing the public awareness must be recognized and factual input should be given by the scientific community in simple and easy to understand texts. This safeguard will be important because incorrect knowledge is likely to prove more dangerous. After all, an ignorant farmer or common man cannot differentiate between a conventional and a GM technology. Participatory decision-making should be encouraged at all levels, including by the policy-makers, administrators, legal expects, industry and farmers so as to safeguard the long term interests of promoting GM technology for benefit of the society.

27. The enhancement of IPRs under the TRIPS Agreement has keenly affected the area domain of scientific innovations, including the biotechnological inventions. The bioprospecting, mining and the application of genic power in agricultural research are surely to be influenced by the capacity and skill to manage the IPRs. The international understanding has been firmed up around two basic issues i.e. ‘protection of intellectual property for exclusive use’, and ‘benefit sharing on the principles of equity’. The TRIPS Agreement and the CBD have addressed these issues and both provide the legally binding requirements. Yet there are some gaps, which need to be determined and bridged. The 10-year transition period for the implementation of TRIPS provision, which was over by 1.1.2005, appears to have been too short for the developing countries to institutionalize the whole processes so as to provide a ‘level playing field’ to the international players. Interdependence of countries for genetic resources for food and agriculture will have to continue, and the genic power must be harnessed by the innovating scientists across the world for the global community as a whole. In relation to harnessing public good from an IPR protected technology, the IPR laws already provide the mechanism of ‘compulsory licensing’. Much more needs to be done to generate public good in commodities having low commercial interest, but which are vital for food security and system sustainability.

28. Particular concerns, especially in the public sector research system are:

  1. How the whole system is to be fine-tuned in the system wide system perspective?
  2. How IPR portfolio is to be managed ?
  3. How the dissemination of research findings is going to take shape?
  4. Would the biosafety and environmental safety concerns be timely addressed to ?
  5. How the knowledge base can be used and shared with the scientific fraternity, the academia, the industry, the farmers, the end-users, and the public at large?
  6. How gene power through biotechnological applications in agriculture can be acclimatized to a level where it eventually becomes a way of life?
  7. How the vast genetic variability could be sampled and utilized ?

29. There is a need for every scientist to familiarize with the techno-legal requirements of IPR protection and benefit sharing, for example, entering into MOUs, MTAs, Benefit Sharing Agreements, Licensing contracts, Transfer of Technology or Know-how Agreements, Secrecy Agreements, etc. It is important to reveal the ‘know-how’ only after an appropriate licensing contract has been entered into, commensurate with the best possible commercial returns from the invention. A few more challenges that need to be addressed include, for example, the sui generis protection of essentially derived varieties together with the IPR portfolio management in the same research programme so as to get the best benefit.

30. Holding of IPR titles, both quantitatively and qualitatively is a matter of pride, no doubt. But, more important is as to how we are going to disseminate the protected technologies for the cause of enhancing food security as well as the household nutritional security? In this regard, it may be judicious to consider giving several non-exclusive licenses at a lower incentive rather than an exclusive license at a huge fee. This will not only reduce the monopolistic tendency in the market but would also reduce the cost of production and thereby prices, which will ultimately enhance the affordability of common man to benefit from the IPR protected GM products. In sum substance, both biotechnology and IPR are important for shaping the course of ‘harnessed gene power’ and we must cope up with the developments in both areas simultaneously. Following areas need immediate attention with regard to IPR protection:

  1. It may be made mandatory that every project should have a patent/ IPR search appended to it before it is cleared.
  2. Similar provision may be enforced for Master's and Doctoral synopses, which may have full statement of IPR regime/ patent search attached to it.
  3. It has become absolutely essential that the institutions/ organizations/ SAUs come out with distinct guidelines for the author of scientific publications advising them about what is to be published and what is not to be published, so that the vital information is protected. The technology generators may share the technical information with the contemporary world in such a way that it ensures the protection of vital component from the angle of patent regime.

31. In sum and substance revitalized Indian agriculture can be the engine of growth in this millennium wherein the search, characterization, isolation and utilisation of new genes from across the taxa for imparting desirable traits in crop and livestock species through application of biotechnology would be the ideal options. Natural and farm biodiversity needs to be explored as an essential prerequisite in ‘search for new genes’. In this endeavour, an enlightened human resource is critical to capitalize on the opportunity in the offing. The advent of new global trade and IP regimes requires cost effectiveness and global competitiveness. System sustainability is of paramount importance, which can be achieved only by following a system wide system approach. A sound and customized policy support would also go a long way. India’s National Agricultural Research System has been responding to these evolving concerns and is poised to do so in the years ahead.

The best tributes to the visionary, Dr B. P. Pal, whose each and every action was commensurate with the contemporary needs and the required foresight for a bright future of science-led Indian agriculture, would be that the agricultural scientific community resolves to intensify the search for new genes and harness the genic power to enhance agricultural productivity, profitability and resource use efficiency for developing a prosperous India.

Thank you!