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“Processing can improve scope for value-added agri”
Monday, 03 August, 2015, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Though, sometime back, the state of Maharashtra, initiated open field trials for genetically-modified (GM) crops, recently they were put on hold by the state government. The government cited objection from various research institutes and scientists as the reason for stopping the trials. In fact, the trials would be stopped till the designated committee reviews the objections and gives approval.  

Prof. M S Swaminathan, founder chairman, M S Research Foundation, Chennai, also a renowned Indian agricultural scientist and geneticist, who is credited with India’s Green Revolution, talks about the stalled trials and the current scenario of agriculture in India and its impact on the growth of food processing sector in the country, in an email interaction with Harcha Bhaskar. Excerpts:

Currently Maharashtra has given the nod for field trials of GM crops and a couple of neighbouring states are considering doing the same. What are your observations about these developments?
It is right time that we get large number of GM varieties in the breeders’ assembly line tested at the field level. Without field testing we will not know the merits and demerits.

Can GM be solution for food and nutrition security in the country?
GM is only a technology and it has to be used in conjunction with other methods of breeding. The only advantage of GM is that it enlarges the scope for creating novel genetic combinations.

How will the farmer benefit from GM crops as price of seeds is a key issue?
The farmer can benefit from GM crops if government enlarges its support for public good research. The ICAR and other government organisations should concentrate on producing GM varieties rather than GM hybrids. This will enable farmers to keep their own seeds.

What about their impact on normal crops as it is believed that even when on a trial basis, seed dispersal of GM crops happens far and wide?
There are methods of growing GM crops with appropriate isolation from normal varieties. Thus, we can avoid cross pollination between GM varieties and the earlier varieties cultivated by farmers.

What about the impact on resources such as water and land. It is said that GM crops affect arability, how far is this true?
Inputs are needed for output and the amount of water and nutrients needed will depend upon yield target. The higher the yield, greater will be the need for nutrients.

How much is the total production of food grains in India? Is it enough to feed the ever growing population?

At the moment, we are producing over 250 million tonne of food grains.

We have surplus of about 40 million tonne. This will be adequate. In addition, we produce 260 million tonne of fruits and vegetables and 140 million tonne of milk. This is adequate for our present population.

Green Revolution took the country to self-sufficiency then why is it that we still need GM crops?
Green Revolution involves the use of new plant architecture. GM technology helps us to produce varieties which are climate-smart.

There has been a gradual decrease in farming area in India, what are the reasons behind it? How has climate change played a role in depleting agriculture production in the country?

There is multiple demand for farm land. For example, the new capital of Andhra will require a lot of agricultural land in the Guntur area. Therefore, we should have a land use policy which will safeguard our food security.

How can India increase agriculture production and ensure food security in the country?
The average yields in most crops are low in relation to what other countries including China are achieving. Therefore we have a large untapped yield reservoir and we can try to change the situation to an integrated package of technology, services and public policies.

What are your expectations from the food processing industry that would help the agriculture sector and food security in the country?
Food processing industry can play a vital role in improving the scope for value-added agriculture. Particularly, we can encourage youth to take to food processing. Food processing industry can also help in promoting contract farming in which specialised varieties are grown.

It is being observed that there is constant fluctuation in food grain, fruits and vegetable prices whereas processed foods like RTE seldom change price, what would be the possible reason for it?
Price volatility is high. It can either be due to demand exceeding supply or market manipulation. The National Commission on Farmers has recommended an Indian Single Market in order to promote unrestricted movement of agricultural products throughout the country. This will extend some help in reducing price volatility and help farmers to have greater stability of income.

In the year 2014, there have been several issues of decline or ban of Indian agricultural products like vegetables and fruits by other countries because of fertiliser and pesticide residue. Your comment on same. How can it be avoided in future?
Both import-export policies and input-output pricing can increase farmers’ income or affect them adversely. A good example is what is happening in Kerala with rubber prices. Post-harvest technology is very important to reduce pesticide residue. There has to be greater regulation relating to the use of pesticides with long residual toxicities. Our regulatory mechanisms are rather weak.

What are your expectations from the government in regards to subsidy and regulation that can boost agriculture sector? What are your views on the Budget for agriculture sector?

The present government has announced high priority for irrigation and for soil healthcare. These announcements do not find financial support in the Budget for 2015-16. It is hoped that state governments which will receive more fund allocation will increase their outlay on agriculture since agriculture is a state subject in our constitution.
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