Authors: Sheel Yadav and Supreet Kaur
India is a key contributor in the world agriculture and food scenario .It ranks second in the world in farm outputs. Internally, agriculture is a key element of social livelihood. Almost two-thirds of India’s population of 1.1 billion depends on agriculture, which in turn feed in a substantive way the entire population. Small and marginal farmers, whose land holdings are below 2 hectares, constitute almost 80% of all Indian farmers, and more than 90% of them are dependent on rain for their crops. The small scale farmers in developing countries are faced with many problems and constraints. Their crop harvest is prone to pre and postharvest crop losses, due to biotic and abiotic stresses like insects, diseases, weeds, and droughts, which as a consequence lead to fluctuation and uncertainties in their incomes and food availability. Agricultural biotechnology offers an important tool, which along with traditional breeding, new technologies, and improved resource management, enhances crop productivity. This increases the incomes of small-scale agricultural producers in an environmentally sustainable way by:
- Reducing pesticide and excess fertilizer use, that pose threats to biodiversity and human health.
- Battling damaging plant diseases and pests by developing new resistant crop varieties.
- Making widely grown food crops more resilient and stress tolerant, thereby helping farmers adapt to a changing climate.
- Enhancing the nutritional quality of key staple crops to counter malnutrition and improve the health of farmers and consumers.
However, most of the above have limited applicability owing to either high cost and infrastructure and skill requirement, or because of the strong opposition to GM foods . The opposition is driven in part by perceived lack of consumer benefits, uncertainty about possible negative health and environmental effects, widespread perception that a few large corporations will be the primary beneficiaries, and ethical concerns. But Biotechnology, still has a lot to offer. Some of the applications which can be easily used by farmers and do not require skilled personnel are -:
- Biodynamic Agriculture
Biodynamic agriculture is an advanced organic farming system. In addition to the basic practices of organic farming, biodynamic agriculture uses, preparations like fermented cow manure and herbal extracts. The herbs like Yarrow (Achillea sp.), Chamomile (Chamomilla sp.), Stinging Nettle ( Urtica sp.), Dandelion (Taraxacum sp.), Oak bark (Quercus sp.) and Valerian (Valariana sp.) are fermented in a unique way so that these preparations act as catalysts and stimulants to activate the soil dynamics and the plant metabolism in a desired way to yield a quality produce. Biodynamic agriculture differs from organic agriculture in use of preparation and special practices like:
- Special compost preparations
- Special foliar sprays
- Planting by astronomical calendar
- Peppering for pest control
The biodynamic preparations enhancing influence the biological aspects of the farm by the microbial activity in the soils. This in turn improves the soil quality and health, enhancing the growth, yield and quality of crops.
Vermicomposting is a method of preparing enriched compost with the use of earthworms. It is one of the methods in order to recycle agricultural wastes and to produce quality compost. Earthworms consume biomass which gets excreted in its digested form as worm casts. The latter are popularly called Black gold. These casts are rich in nutrients, growth promoting substances, soil enriching micro flora and has the properties of inhibiting pathogenic microbes.
The organic nature of vermicompost enriches soil quality by improving its physicochemical and biological properties. It is highly useful in raising seedlings and for crop production. Vermicompost is becoming popular as a major component of organic farming system. Commonly used organic wastes for decomposing include animal excreta, kitchen waste, farm residues and forest litter. Mixture of leguminous and non-leguminous crop residues enriches the quality of vermicompost. For the purpose of composting, red earthworm is preferred owing to its high multiplication rate which enables conversion of the organic matter into vermicompost within 45-50 days. Since it is a surface feeder, it converts organic materials into vermicompost from top.
The amount of nutrients present in the compost depends upon the source of the raw material and the species of earthworm that has been used . A fine worm cast is found to be rich in N P K content, in addition to other nutrients. These nutrients are readily available and are released within a month of application.
Table 1: Nutrient Analysis of Vermicompost
Total Nitrogen (%)
Available N (%)
Available P (%)
Available K (%)
Plant tissue culture or micro propagation technology has made invaluable contribution to agriculture by enabling propagation of desirable plant throughout the year by production of elite disease free plants, germplasm conservation etc. It is a technique for in vitro growth of plantlets from any part of the plant in a suitable nutrient medium under controlled aseptic conditions. This technology offers numerous commercial advantages over its conventional counterpart which are summarized below:
- Offers rapid multiplication of elite disease free planting material
- Provides a high degree of phenotypic uniformity
- Enables storage and maintenance of stock plants/germplasm
- Provides round the year supply
In India, the beginning of micropropagation application in horticulture dates back to the early 1980s. Since then, it has been widely used for propagation of many valuable crops like banana, sugarcane, papaya etc. Micropropagated plants have been well accepted by farmers all over the country because of its uniform productivity, freedom from disease, vigorous growth and high yield. Higher yield is contributed by increase in the yield per plant as well as larger number of plants, which can be cultivated per unit area. With increasing awareness about the advantages of tissue culture raised plants in improving yield and quality, their domestic consumption is also increasing optimistically. The domestic consumption rate of tissue culture raised plants is highest for banana, constituting 41% of the share followed by sugarcane at 31%, ornamental at 14%, spices 6% and medicinal plants at 4%.
- Diagonistic kits
- Basmati Verification Kits
These are used by farmers for identification of authorized (Authorized by Governments of India and Pakistan) Basmati cultivars and detection of adulteration. Basmati rice commands a special place among all aromatic rice cultivars on account of the extra-long and slender nature of the grain, soft and fluffy texture of the cooked rice, and its pleasant distinct aroma. Cultivation of authentic Basmati rice is confined to the Indo-Gangetic regions of the Indian sub-continent, and genuine Basmati traits are best defined by the Traditional Basmati varieties that have been cultivated by farmers since centuries. In addition, there are relatively inferior, non-aromatic non-Basmati long grain rice varieties in the market.
Globally, the annual Basmati export market is valued at US $1 billion and is reported to be on the rise . The export of Basmati rice is increasing at the rate of 12% annually with India exporting two-thirds of the total Basmati exported to Europe and the Middle East. Consumer-preference brings higher returns for traditional Basmati varieties, leading to generation of brand equity. The difficulty in differentiating traditional Basmati grains from the usual adulterants, and the steep price difference between traditional Basmati and the other Basmati types in the market often results in adulteration. The adulteration of traditional Basmati grains also affects the exporting countries in terms of diminished interest in the brands and consequently the Basmati trade. Hence, to protect the interests of consumers, identification of genuine Basmati rice samples and devaluation of adulterated samples is vital.
- The Basmati Verifier Kit makes use of a set of eight microsatellite markers (BasmatiVerifier Kit (P/N BV81001) : Labindia) ; the use of multiple markers provides accuracy and reliability to the assay.
- Transgenic Diagonistic Kits
Research on development of farmer usable transgenic diagnostic kits has been ongoing in India for some time now. Several testing methods (Bt-Quant ELISA kit, Bt-PCR-zygosity test, Bt-Express Lateral flow strips kit and Bt-detect dot-blot kit) have been developed at the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), Nagpur to help farmers, seed industry owners and researchers, in identifying Bt-cotton. The Cry1Ac detection kits were commercialized in 2002 and since then they have become very popular with more than 10,00,000 strips being used by various stakeholders for quality control to ensure transgene seed purity. Empowering farmers with ‘on-the-spot’ test kits to detect transgenic seed purity will enable improvement in the overall quality seed availability in India.
- Serological Kits for detection of plant pathogens
Early detection of disease causing pathogens is extremely crucial to combat it before it causes widespread damage to the crop. Many kits have been designed to detect plant diseases early which are either based on identification of the pathogen in the plant (by testing for the presence of pathogen DNA) or the molecules (proteins) produced by either the pathogen or the plant during infection. Important agricultural crops are threatened by a wide variety of plant diseases and pests. These can damage crops, lower fruit and vegetable quality and wipe out entire harvests. About 42% of the world’s total agricultural crop is destroyed yearly by diseases and pests. However, these huge crop losses can be minimized and controlled to a certain degree, if plant diseases are correctly diagnosed and identified early. The traditional method commonly employed by the farmers of identifying plant pathogens is through visual examination. This is often possible only after major damage has already been done to the crop, so treatments will be of limited or no use. In order to save plants from irreversible damage by pathogens, farmers have to be able to identify an infection at a much early stage, even before it becomes visible. These kits have been shown to require minimal processing time and are more accurate in identifying pathogens. These can be used by a person with no special training.There are numerous ELISA based test kits available in the market. These can successfully detect diseases of root crops (e.g. cassava, beet, potato), ornamentals (e.g. lilies, orchids), fruits (e.g. banana, apple, grapes), grains (e.g. wheat, rice), and vegetables. To name a few, ELISA techniques can detect the ratoon stunting disease of sugarcane, tomato mosaic virus, papaya ringspot virus, banana bract mosaic virus, banana bunchy top virus, watermelon mosaic virus, and rice tungro virus.
- Cost Factor Involved
Most of the above mentioned diagnostic kits are either PCR based or ELISA based. The latter are the most commonly used ones because they are cost effective, require no technical knowledge for using and also for interpreting the results obtained.
If the case of Bt cotton is considered, out of a total of 6.3 million farmers , 5.6 million farmers planted Bt-cotton on 9.4 million hectares in 2008 with an average cotton holding of 1.5 ha (Ministry of Agriculture, India, 2008).The net revenue with the adoption of Bt cotton is about Rs. 18,000/hac. This profit generated is because of the fact that a) cotton is a cash crop and b) Bt cotton as opposed to natural cotton is less agricultural inputs intensive. If hypothetically 50% of farmers are currently using the ELISA based transgenic seed purity kit, priced at Rs.1000/kit (for fifty tests or seed samples) ,the number would likely increase because of the relative cost effectiveness involved in buying the kit. However for a crop like brinjal (if and when Bt brinjal comes ) , the picture might not be the same. Thus,pricing the technological applications according to the agricultural commodity in question would serve the farming community of the country better.
Modern biotechnology is not an elixir for achieving food security, but when used in conjunction with traditional or conventional agricultural research methods, it may serve as a powerful tool in the fight against poverty. It has the potential to help enhance agricultural productivity in developing countries in a way that further reduces poverty, improves food security and nutrition, and promotes sustainable use of natural resources.
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About Author / Additional Info:
I am working as a scientist at the Division of Genomic Resources, ICAR-NBPGR.