Using science to improve Indian agriculture

  • Blog Post Date 26 June, 2015
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Robert S. Zeigler

International Rice Research Institute

Five years ago, the Indian government imposed a ‘temporary’ moratorium on the commercial release of Bt brinjal – a genetically modified crop - even after it had passed through the due regulatory processes. In this article, Robert S Zeigler, a plant pathology expert, outlines the benefits of transgenic crops and emphasises the need to expedite their adoption in India.

For the last 25 years, I have worked on various aspects of rice research in India. During this period, I have had the very good fortune of working with outstanding colleagues in a number of fine research institutions and universities. I am thoroughly impressed with the quality of Indian scientists and graduate students, especially those working on research projects that are part of the collaborative programme of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). India has an incredible cadre of young scientists poised to propel the country toward being a world leader in transforming agriculture through the use of modern scientific tools.

How science has benefitted agriculture so far

Indeed, it has been science-based improvements in agricultural technology that have contributed significantly — across two Green Revolutions (GR) — to alleviating hunger and poverty in India and most of Asia. The first GR that started in the 1960s — what I call GR1.0 — converted India from being a basketcase to a bread basket — a play on words I like and have borrowed from Shanthu Shantharam, the former executive director of the agricultural group of India’s Association of Biotechnology-Led Enterprises and who currently teaches plant biotechnology and biotechnology innovation management at Iowa State University.

The science of GR1.0 basically built high-yielding semi-dwarf rice and wheat plant architecture adapted to low-stress environments, which mostly benefited farmers in favourable, irrigated areas. The science of the second GR (GR2.0) has gone one better on GR1.0 by “leaving no farmer behind”, especially those poor rice farmers growing their crop in marginal environments. I maintain that GR2.0 in rice started in 2008, when farmers began adopting one of this revolution’s first new technologies, flood-tolerant rice, which can withstand total submergence for more than two weeks. Since then, these Sub1 varieties (the gene discovered and deployed by IRRI and Indian scientists that enables the plant to survive complete submergence is named Sub1) have spread like wildfire in eastern India and in other regions where flooding is a perennial problem.

The Sub1 technology can be attributed primarily to high-level and top-quality science — science conducted in some of the finest laboratories in the world and published in top scientific journals (such as Nature) — to solve the problems Indian farmers are facing in their fields. One scientific study (Dar et al. 2013) reported that India’s scheduled castes —among the nation’s most underprivileged — are likely to be a major beneficiary of the spread of the flood-tolerant rice varieties. If this is not a scientific revolution helping to transform society, I don’t know what is.

GMO crops: A third Green Revolution

I also envision that, sometime around 2030, a third GR (GR3.0) will commence when Indian and other farmers start planting yield-plateau-busting C4 rice and nitrogen-fixing rice. These varieties will be extraordinarily environmentally friendly as, to produce higher yield, they will only need half the amount of water and nitrogen currently used. By this time, as well, consumers should have been benefiting for years from better quality and more nutritious rice, fortified with iron, zinc, and pro-vitamin A, in the marketplace. However, I fear this vision could be delayed or thwarted altogether by something very disturbing I heard during my recent visits to Indian universities:

It seems that the anti-science, anti-technology, and anti-GMO (genetically modified organism) movements that are hindering the use of transgenic crops in India, such as ‘BT brinjal’ (eggplant) and pro-vitamin A-fortified Golden Rice (GR), are having a chilling effect on our students. Some brilliant students are wondering if they should devote any time at all to studying agriculture and biology. Maybe it is not worth the effort if they won’t be able to fully apply their ingenuity to the tools that they learned how to use in school. This is indeed troubling. The future of agricultural science, in general, and rice science, specifically, is at stake if we cannot nurture the next crop of vibrant, intelligent, and caring young scientists. We certainly don’t want to create an environment where there are disincentives for the best and the brightest to study. We want these people to be attracted to agriculture and to do work that contributes to food security, sustainability, and improving our environment.

GMO opponents and anti-technology lobbyists must learn to embrace science, not fear it. Dr Shantharam points out that India is home to the world’s largest population of vitamin A-deficient (VAD) people, most of whom are children and pregnant women, many of whom are dying or going blind without the vitamin in their diet. I agree with him that it is among the worst forms of negligence to keep GR from a needy and deserving population just because some “Luddites”1, as he calls them, don’t like it.

For more than a decade, IRRI has had a very close relationship with the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi, the Indian Institute of Rice Research in Hyderabad, and the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in developing GR varieties adapted to local conditions so that Indian farmers can grow them. I can only hope that policymakers will allow this crop to proceed and not suffer the same fate as Bt brinjal.

It is disappointing that Bt brinjal approval has been delayed in India. When one considers the very large amount of pesticides applied to brinjal in India, the release of the Bt version of the crop would bring tremendous environmental benefits by greatly reducing excessive and broadly toxic pesticide applications that indiscriminately kill organisms and harm the environment. No doubt, its availability would be a health benefit to farmers, economically attractive to them, and a big win for the environment. It goes without saying that consumers would no longer have to worry about eating eggplant with pesticide residue on it. So, Bt brinjal is a product that is environmentally, economically, and toxicologically beneficial, but the ‘Luddites’ again continue to block it because they think GM is evil in and of itself. They try to balance hypothetical, even fantastical risks of a technology against known, demonstrated, and massive positive benefits. And they confound arguments around science and technologies with selected multinationals they choose to demonise.

Regarding GR, I was shaken to the core when about two years ago in the Philippines — where approval to distribute GR seeds to farmers has been closely coordinated with Philippine regulatory bodies — opponents ripped up experimental plots of the crop. What were they trying to accomplish? I suspect that they willfully destroyed the very experiments that will prove that GR is a safe and effective food!

Fast-tracking adoption of new agricultural technologies

Although still on hold in India, Bt brinjal has been released in Bangladesh. Interestingly, Bangladesh approved Bt brinjal based on the data generated here in India, which illustrates a concept that I would like to promote further. Many countries, like India, already have rigorous approval processes for genetically-engineered products, crops, food, etc. Countries in South Asia, for example, could mutually recognise those approval processes much as they recognise the food standards in the Codex Alimentarius2 rather than insisting that each test be repeated locally. This would be a responsible way to accelerate the adoption of high science and biotechnology — including crop varieties.

Bangladesh’s release of Bt brinjal is one excellent example. Perhaps an even better proof of concept is when, last October, the secretaries of agriculture of India, Bangladesh, and Nepal signed an agreement to fast-track the release of any rice variety undergoing proper evaluation protocols in any one of their countries. Acting rapidly on this revolutionary and courageous agreement, India has already directly released four rice varieties from Bangladesh and two from Nepal for Indian farmers growing rice in similar agro-ecologies. This historic agreement will not only fast-track varietal releases, but will also bring huge savings of time and resources to the three countries.

Just think of what could be achieved if other countries decide to go the same way and put into place, as a matter of routine, accepting a neighbour’s already thorough approval processes and protocols as one of the pillars of their own policies and regulatory frameworks — and then truly act on it. We really don’t have time to keep reinventing the wheel. The world’s poor are depending on us — scientists and policymakers alike — to work together. If we don’t, shame on us!

A version of this article has appeared on the IRRI Blog and Economic Times Blog.


  1. The Luddites were 19th-century English textile workers who protested against newly developed labour-economising technologies from 1811 to 1816.
  2. The Codex Alimentarius is a collection of internationally recognised standards, codes of practice, guidelines and other recommendations relating to foods, food production and food safety.

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1 Comment:


Hello sir, this article really is interesting. Iam an Msc student interested in doing research related to agricultural development. It would be very effective if people like you have a direct interaction with students like us through the university conferences where you can also discuss about oppurtunities, universities and careers in agriculture which would be very helpful to us. Thank you.

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