Food and nutritional security: Can science provide a helping hand?
By: Vibha Dhawan, Kiran Kumar Sharma
Over the past few decades, science has made huge strides in the improvement of crops for food, feed, and forage across the globe. Fascinatingly, there has been a constant developmental change in both crop and healthcare systems that has helped us discover newer technologies with each passing decade.
However, globally, the demand for food has spiked due to the ever-growing human population and increasing demand of more nutritious and safely produced food. Besides, the recent geo-politics has exacerbated concerns for food and nutritional security, especially in the very near future.
Thus, ensuring food security not just in terms of calorific needs but diminishing nutritional security from the natural resources has become a matter of challenge. Both national and international agricultural research systems have set up goals to achieve better resilient high-yielding cultivars in a reduced time frame to achieve these needs.
Precision plant breeding is increasingly being undertaken in the modernized crop breeding platforms to provide transformational solutions to the “game changing” traits to accomplish the intended increases in the rate of genetic gains. Cutting edge technologies like genetic engineering, and now CRISPR offers possibilities that are beyond the reach of most conventional breeding techniques. It is important to point out that agro- biotechnology, including marker-assisted precision breeding and GM-technology for imparting intractable traits that are unmanageable to achieve by conventional techniques have become an important and successful tool in improving plant-breeding programmes. These technologies are further aimed towards leading to sustainable agriculture and offer resilience to climatic variations that are becoming more frequent.
In the Indian context, since the late 1980s, the Government of India has given high priority and strong support to the development of agro-biotechnology in the country. A separate Department of Biotechnology was set up under Ministry of Science and Technology in 1985. This is backed by several ambitions including making India as one of the world leading nations in agro-biotechnology, gear this indigenous technological development to Indian needs, ensure that Indian crop yields regain the heights reached during the ‘Green Revolution’, and ensure that India remains self-sufficient in future food demands, besides making India a major global exporter of food.
The global genetically engineered crops market grew from $19.72 billion in 2021 to $21.08 billion in 2022 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.9%, that is expected to grow to $26.38 billion in 2026 at a CAGR of 5.8% (https://www.thebusinessresearchcompany.com/report/genetically-modified-crops-global-market-report). This provides a huge opportunity for India to be a major playersin the global plant biotech sector.
Some recent advances including approval for the commercialization of genetically engineered mustard is gearing for sustainability of the oil seed sector. It can be assumed that similar advanced and commercializable technologies will take India to the forefront as a major global player in the large emerging market of biotech crops.
One such innovation of a Hybrid Technology coming from the Indian public sector is the recently approved Dhara Mustard Hybrid – 11 (DMH-11), a genetically engineered mustard variety. Mustard is grown on 6-7 million hectares, primarily in the states of Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, and Madhya Pradesh. India imports roughly 55-60% of its edible oil requirements.
Around 13.3 million tonnes of edible oil were imported in 2020-21 at a cost of Rs. 1.17 Lakh crore. This is primarily due to low productivity of about 1-1.3 tonnes/ hectare from oilseed mustard, which has remained stable for more than two decades. Plant Hybrids are typically created by crossing two genetically diverse plants from the same species to obtain a progeny that has higher yields than either of the diverse parent.
Mustard being a self-pollinating crop, makes it difficult for plant breeders to make crosses to bring in desirable characteristics for its sustainability and higher productivity. DMH-11 is the result of a cross between Varuna and Early Heera-2 varieties using the Hybrid Technology that not only has higher yield but is also fertile. All India coordinated trials at eight locations conducted over three years periodhave shown that DMH-11 has 28% higher yields than its parent Varuna and is 37% better than zonal checks.
Interestingly, rather than being an end in itself, the development of genetically engineered hybrid variety DMH-11 indicates the success of the Hybrid System coupled with genetic engineering. The technology involves Bar, Barnase and Barstar gene system where the Barnase gene confers male sterility, while the Barstar gene restores fertility ensuring the production of fertile seeds. The third gene Bar, confers resistance to glufosinate. Thus, the benefits of the developed technology are not limited to DMH-11 but it can be consideredas a Platform Technology for the development of newer hybrids with better quality that are required to reduce India’s rising edible-oil import bill.
Hence, such innovative technologies can be game changers for the Indian agriculture taking India to the forefront as a major food provider. It is important that a strong innovative ecosystem is developed and supported to ushering India in this direction. The COVID-19 pandemic has very well demonstrated that Indian science, through the proactive engagement of its public and private sectors, besides capitalizing on its start-up ecosystem can respond to emerging challenges, where we have seen increasing self-reliance in developing vaccines, diagnostics, and related devices not only for the home market but also for the global markets.
(Vibha Dhawan is Director General, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), New Delhi and Kiran Kumar Sharma, Programme Director, Sustainable Agriculture, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI)-PIB.