Fbae Logo
Home | | Support Us | Contact Us
Goals & Objectives Our Position False Propaganda Special Topics Important Publications Important Links Events Biosafety
Fbae Header Home






India Must Yield to GM Rice
Dr. Shanthu Shantharam
The International Year of Rice is drawing to a close. But rice continues to be `life' for the Asians, in general, and Indians, in particular. Asia cultivates 137 million hectares of rice, of which India has a lion's share of 45 million hectares (137 million tonnes or two tonnes per hectare) that is a distant second to China, whose tonnage is twice that. Rice contributes to 15 per cent annual GDP of India and provides 43 per cent calorie requirement for more than 70 per cent of Indians.

India's population is expected to be 1.2 billion by 2012 and it will have to produce a whopping 120 million tonnes of rice to meet the burgeoning demand. Major constraints to rice production that India will face are land, water, labour and other inputs such as fertilisers, pesticides and insecticides, and even high quality germplasm, without affecting the already degraded and stressed agricultural environment. The big question is can India do it, given the current status of its agricultural capability.

At the moment, India has only high yielding varieties such as IR-64, Jaya, and Srjoo 52, and about 17 hybrid rice varieties have just made a hesitant debut. Resistance to major pests and diseases such as stem borers, gall midge, blast, bacterial leaf blight and sheath rot are limited both in high yielding varieties and hybrid rice. There has been a ten-fold increase in the cost of hybrid rice compared to high yielding varieties. The cost of hybrid rice seed per hectare is about Rs 2,000.

Under optimum growing conditions hybrid rice can provide a yield advantage of 1- 1.5 tonnes per hectare (still far short of China's 5 tonnes per hectare), and certainly provides a cost advantage of an average Rs 4,000 per hectare. Yield advantage of hybrids is still not consistent in all parts of South India where they have been introduced and, as such, adoption by farmers is slow.

Large-scale hybrid rice seed production is still undergoing refinement, and continues to represent major challenges for large-scale adoption. Although hybrid rice cultivation is an economically beneficial proposition, it has not been taken up on a large-scale by all rice farmers.

The mainstay of Indian rice cultivation is high-yielding rice varieties. Rice as a crop has notched impressive gains in its study and understanding in the past 25 years, thanks mostly to the efforts of research community aided by a fantastic applications of molecular biology and biotechnology through Rockefeller Foundation's International Rice Biotechnology Network and the IRRI-based Asian Rice Biotechnology Network, of which India has been an active partner. Rice genome has also been completely mapped and its sequence has been delineated in the last couple of years both by public and private sector scientists.

Once again, Indian scientists have made significant contributions to these international efforts and there is an impressive array of biotechnology research projects funded both by the Department of Biotechnology and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, to develop genetically engineered rice for stem borers, blast resistance, bacterial leaf blight resistance and biofortification of micronutrients; of which Golden Rice is important.

Indian scientists have developed Bt rice and have been field testing for a couple of years now, and it is time to push it for rapid commercialisation after a thorough regulatory review. The chances of finding natural resistance to major pests and diseases in rice seems bleak and hybrid rice may not be much of a salvation.

Therefore, the best option now seems to be the deployment of genetically engineered rice that is undergoing field tests. The GM rice varieties must be rapidly commercialised through a rigorous regulatory review encompassing all aspects of bio safety and environmental impacts.

The alleged significant environmental impact issue relative to GM rice is that it has the potential to reduce or seriously impact the wild and weedy relatives (biodiversity) of rice, as India is one of the major centres of rice biodiversity.

This issue is not as significant as it is made out to be as rice is predominantly a self-pollinating crop and gene flow is limited to the rice growing tracts far away from where rice biodiversity occurs. And, even if novel genes from GM rice flow into wild and weedy relatives, their introgression will be very low due to lack of selection pressure and the progeny will be sterile and unfit for survival.

Any gene introgression into wild weedy relatives will only result in enhanced genetic diversity and not less. There is really no known plausible pathway of gene flow from GM rice that would deleteriously affect rice biodiversity.

India is also home to the world's largest number of malnourished people, most of whom are women and children.

Almost 15 million women and children suffer from Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD) and most of them fall under the poorest of poor category. The golden rice development must be put on fast track and be made viable to the suffering people.

Similarly iron-rich GM rice is also under development along many other bio-fortified crops that should not be delayed or denied to suffering deserving and needy sections of India.

Another important problem of rice production in upland rice is weed control that costs almost 30 per cent of the total cost of crop cultivation. In transplanted rice, yield loss due to weeds can vary from 18-48 per cent and yield loss of up to 90 per cent is not unheard of.

The number of herbicides for weed control in rice cultivation is getting narrower, making integrated weed management a real challenge in medium- to largescale (20- 100 acre) rice farms.

Additionally, manual labour costs are making it increasingly uneconomical to cultivate rice in many parts of India. Herbicide resistant GM rice can be a weapon of choice for weed control under such circumstances, an option that should not be dispensed with based on the fear of the scientifically bogus "genetic pollution" and 66 genetic contamination" scares.

Non-GM herbicide resistant rice is already available as an option but only for imidizialone class of herbicides, and what is needed is a broad spectrum, post-emergent herbicide resistance crop that is now readily available in the form GM rice, and it should be tested and tried to determine its feasibility without having to worry about undue biosafety or environmental impacts that are no more or less the same as for any other introduced rice variety into Indian agriculture.

If non-GM herbicide resistant rice has not done any damage to the biodiversity of rice, then there is no earthly reason why GM herbicide resistant rice should not be cultivated.

Many environmental impact assessments of GM rice have come to a finding of no significant impact on the environment, and as such there should not be any unique environmental impact issue in the Indian situation.

Salt-and drought-tolerant GM rice is also undergoing field tests, which should also be put on a fast track to commercialisation. GM rice has a clear advantage as it can address many of the production constraints in India and help protect environment by cutting down on chemical inputs.

There is a global movement to stop or delay deployment of GM crops technology and India must not allow useful GM rice to be held hostage and deny itself the fruits of this technology.

India must put in place a scientifically rigorous regulatory oversight system to address any potential biosafety and environmental impact issues and bring the fruits of modem technology to bear on rice improvement and production.

Given some of the major biotic and abiotic: constraints for increasing the rice production in the years ahead, GM rice becomes a highly relevant option for India, and an option that must not be either delayed or denied based on baseless unscientific fears. China, which is already way ahead in rice production now, has announced that it will commercialise GM rice in 2005.

If India does not get ready to implement GM rice in a short order, stealth GM rice will find its own way into Indian markets just as Bt-cotton did. India must not waste too much time on evaluating the utility of GM rice for improving agriculture.