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Genetically Engineered Crops in India

Prof. C Kameswara Rao
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education,
krao@vsnl.com, www.fbae.org, www.fbaeblog.org

In India, 65 per cent of the population is involved in agriculture, directly or indirectly.   About 15 per cent are landless labour, earning less than a dollar a day.   About 65 per cent of the farmers own less than one hectare of land.  The past scientific and technological advances and financial inputs have hardly reached the poor farmer. 

Green Revolution transformed India from a food-importing nation into a food-exporting nation.   However, an overzealous and inappropriate management practices denied the country the full benefits of Green Revolution. 

During the past four decades, cash crops such as cotton, sugarcane and tobacco took precedence over dry land crops like pulses, oil seeds and millets.  Rice cultivation increased from 227 mill. acres in 1960, to 2518 mill. acres by 2000.   Cultivation of wheat increased three times and that of cotton two times.   Simultaneously, the cultivation of pulses fell from 836 mill. acres to 13 mill. acres, that of pearl millet fell down by 20 times and that of groundnut by 15 times.   This trend seriously affected the small farmer and rural economy. 

The Indian agriculture needs quantitative and qualitative enhancement of production without increasing arable or irrigated land.  The resource poor farmer needs to be protected and the Indian farmer should put on an internationally competitive technological and commercial base.  All this can be achieved only with the aid of modern technology, as conventional strategies have largely failed.

Various public and private sector institutions undertook the development of several genetically engineered (GE) crops, under a pro-active policy of the Government of India. 


The Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi (IARI), Indian Institute of Horticultural Research, Bangalore (IHRI), National Botanical Research Institute, Lucknow (NBRI), National Centre for Plant Genome Research, New Delhi (NCPGR), National Research Centre for Weed Science, Jabalpur (NRCWS), Central Rice Research Institute, Cuttack (CRRI), Directorate of Rice Research, Hyderabad (DRR), Central Potato Research Institute, Simla (CPRI), and Sugarcane Breeding Institute, Coimbatore (SBI), are important public sector institutions involved in GE crop development.  

Institutions such as the University of Delhi (UDSC), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (JNU), Madras University, Chennai (CAS), Osmania University, Hyderabad (OUH), Madurai-Kamaraj University, Madurai (MKU), Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore (TNAU), University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore and Dharwad (UASB, UASD), and some others are also involved in GE crop development.

The autonomous institutions engaged in GE crop development are the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics, Hyderabad (ICRISAT), The Energy Research Institute, New Delhi (TERI), M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai (MSSRF), and Entomology Research Unit, Loyola College, Chennai (ERLCC). 


In the private sector the Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech, Mumbai (MMB), is the largest player.   Meta-Helix, Bangalore, Avestagen, Bangalore, Dow Agrosciences, Bangalore, Sungrow Seeds Ltd., New Delhi, and several other companies are also developing GE crops.

There are 23 crops, involving 67 GE traits, in different stages of development.   Contrary to the general belief, the public sector is involved in the development of the largest number of GE traits (39).  The autonomous institutes are developing 8 traits and the private sector 20 traits. 


With 12 Bt hybrids on 72,000 acres in 2002-03, Bt cotton cultivation grew to 40 approved varieties on about 4.5 mill. acres in 2006-07.   Another 20 varieties with Cry 1 Ac and two gene stacked varieties with Cry 1Ac + Cry 1Ab would be commercialized next year.

In 2005-06, only 09 per cent of cotton acreage is under legal Bt cotton while 26 per cent is under the illegal Bt cotton sold as the Navbharath 151 seed.   About 66 per cent cotton acreage was under spurious Bt or non-Bt cotton.  


GE varieties rice are being developed for pest tolerance (Galanthus nivalis lectin, gna) by the Osmania University; by DRR for bacterial blight and pest resistance (Cry 1AC, gna); IARI for pathogen resistance (chitinase) and pest resistance (Cry 1Ac, Cry 1AB, Cry 1Aa); MKU for pathogen resistance (chitinase, glucanase) and drought resistance (osmotin); MSSRF for salinity resistance; TNAU for pathogen resistance (chitinase); and Mahyco for pest resistance (Cry 1 Ac).

A GE variety of the fragrant Basmathi rice, with stacked genes to control bacterial blight and another to control post-harvest damage by Coleopteran pests, are in development. 

Local varieties of Golden Rice that contain genes for β-carotene in the grain are being developed at the CRRI, DRR and TNAU. 


MMB is developing GE maize for herbicide tolerance and a variety of sorghum for pest tolerance. 


ICRISAT is involved in the production of a pest tolerant chickpea and pigeon pea with Cry 1 Ab and soybean trypsin inhibitor.   MMB is developing a pigeon pea with Cry 1 Ac.


ICRISAT is developing groundnut varieties resistant to the Indian peanut clump virus. 


Mustard is receiving a greater attention for stress resistance (IARI: CodA, osmotin), herbicide tolerance (UDSC and NRCWS: bar, barnase, barstar) and β-carotene content (TERI).


GE potato with Cry 1 Ab (CPRI) and high protein (NCPGR and JNU: Ama-1) and tomato for fungal resistance (NCPGR and JNU): Oxalate decarboxylase) and for pest tolerance (MMB, Cry 1 Ac) are being developed.  The other GE vegetables are cauliflower (MMB and Sungrow Seeds with Cry 1 Ac), cabbage (Sungrow Seeds, Cry 1 Ac) and okra for virus resistance (IHRI and MKU). 

Pest tolerant GE varieties of brinjal (MMB) are ready for large-scale open field trials.


A GE variety of sugarcane with resistance to the fungal disease red rot by SBI, is a recent and interesting development.

While most of these GE crop varieties would take some years before they are commercialized, the prospects for GE crops in India appear to be very bright, in spite of the cacophony of activism.