K. S. Jayaraman24 May 2006
Indian scientists say that reduced access to plant material in international gene banks will limit the country's ability to produce enough wheat, reports K.S. Jayaraman.
India's agriculture minister Sharad Pawar announced last month that the country plans to import 3.5 million tonnes of wheat this year, raising a disturbing question: is the much hyped Green Revolution grinding to a halt?
"I am both shocked and ashamed by the news," says M. V. Rao, former special secretary for agriculture and now head of the Andhra Pradesh Netherlands Biotechnology Programme.
Rao has every reason to be upset. The Green Revolution — which transformed India from begging bowl to breadbasket — owes its origin to the 15 grams of dwarf wheat seeds that Rao brought to India from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico in 1961.
Within three years, Rao and colleagues had developed new wheat varieties adapted to local conditions that increased India's wheat production from a mere 12 million tonnes in 1965 to more than 76 million tonnes in 2000. But since then wheat production has been falling. According to Pawar, this year's wheat yield will be 72 million tonnes.
"If the trend continues, India might not produce the 109 million tonnes needed to feed the estimated 1.4 billion population in 2020," warns Subramaniam Nagarajan, who led the country's wheat research programme in the 1980s and currently heads the Indian government's Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights Authority in New Delhi.
According to Nagarajan, two reasons for the drop in wheat production are that farmers are using less fertiliser, due to rising costs, and that soil quality is diminishing because farmyard manure is no longer widely used. He says that "restrictive policies" at CIMMYT — ironically the agency that played a key role in bringing the Green Revolution to India in the first place — are also to blame.
CIMMYT is one of 16 centres run by the Washington-based Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), whose gene banks hold samples of about 600,000 local crop varieties that are vital for crop breeders worldwide.
"CIMMYT played a key role in the green revolution but the story is different now," says Nagarajan, who was director of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi until September last year.
Writing in the journal Current Science last November, Nagarajan put the problems down to a switch in CIMMYT research priorities from traditional breeding to biotechnology, together with patent-related issues. He said these factors mean that India's national crop breeding programme is being denied elite germplasm — a term for seeds or living plant cells that crop scientists use to breed new varieties — when it needs it most.
Less germplasm is reaching Indian crop breeders than during the Green Revolution days, and this "has affected the process of varietal breeding in India", he wrote. "In other words, there has been no yield gain for the last ten years and there is a plant-breeding fatigue. This is a serious issue and needs to be redressed without delay."
Nagarajan's analysis has no doubt created waves in the CGIAR system but has been appreciated by Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, who developed the dwarf varieties that Indian scientists adapted to usher in the Green Revolution.
In a February 2006 letter to Nagarajan, Borlaug said he agreed that developing higher yielding varieties and deploying nutrients and fertilisers on a wide scale are the "two most important components of production that have stagnated or even retrogressed over the past decade" in India.
CIMMYT agrees that India's progress in increasing wheat yield has been slow but it does not accept Nagarajan's view that it is partly to blame.
The organisation's director general Masa Iwanaga told SciDev.Net that the plant breeding fatigue to which Nagarajan referred "concerns us deeply. But I cannot agree that we have denied elite germplasm to the national [crop breeding] programme in India".
Trouble with delivery
Iwanaga says that from 1990 to 2005 shipments of wheat samples to India tripled. But Nagarajan points out that CIMMYT sends these routinely to all nations without asking whether they are useful for breeding programmes.
"If I want a breakthrough in yield I need novel genes, but CIMMYT does not give us [material containing these genes]," he says. "They do not deny in writing, but if you ask for ten samples they will send two that you don't need."
Citing his own case, Nagarajan said that despite reminders, CIMMYT never responded to a request he made a couple of years ago for seeds that produced wheat plants with long earheads.
CIMMYT spokesperson David Mowbray clarifies that the requested material was at a very preliminary stage and had not completed the breeding cycles necessary to produce germplasm. "We expect to have useful material from that process in 2007," he says.
Other senior crop scientists share Nagarajan's concern. "Before, the CGIAR centres were quite open," says Rao. "Now they are not putting their best material in the open." Rao suspects that the prime material is being saved for private seed companies, but Mowbray of CIMMYT refutes this outright.
"All in-trust germplasm from our gene bank is available," he says. "We produce international public goods available to all."
Nagarajan says that in the past, Indian scientists visiting CIMMYT were allowed to bring back a number of elite wheat seeds and grow them at their stations. They could select the best for further cross-breeding or use them for yield trials. But in recent years, he says, the practice of inviting scientists to select seeds has been scrapped, and the procedures for getting germplasm have become cumbersome.
Mowbray says that CIMMYT — like all other CGIAR centres — is only following the international procedures agreed in the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture that came into force in June 2004.
The end of free seeds?
The treaty, which India has signed, requires recipients of germplasm to sign a Material Transfer Agreement. "It is as awkward for us as it is for the recipient, but we certainly do not discourage requests," adds Mowbray.
Under the Material Transfer Agreement, any party that commercialises genetic material obtained from the CGIAR gene banks will have to pay "an equitable share of the resulting monetary benefits" to the multilateral fund to be set up by the treaty next month.
The level, form and manner of monetary payments, and a standard Material Transfer Agreement for plant genetic resources will be finalised next month at the first meeting of the Treaty's governing body in Madrid, Spain.
"The meeting will drive the last nail in the coffin," says Nagarajan. "With that, the days of free transfer of germplasm from the international gene banks will formally come to end."
He believes that the main beneficiaries of the treaty will be multinational seed companies. These have the money and resources to bring new varieties of wheat to the market more quickly than public sector systems such as the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.
"Material transfer has indeed become very complex," agrees M. S. Swaminathan, India's leading crop scientist and former head of the International Rice Research Institute, a CGIAR centre in the Philippines. "In the longer term, inaccessibility to wheat germplasm can threaten India's food security," he says, "because wheat, unlike rice, is not our crop."
Wheat is not native to India, so scientists must look elsewhere for the genetic variety that can be found abundantly in local wild and farmers' varieties of rice. Genes for breeding new wheat varieties must instead come from gene banks.
But Swaminathan adds that instead of relying only on new genes, Indian scientists can improve productivity by "looking after soil health, soil fertility, water management and so on with existing varieties".
Nagarajan points out, however, that along with fertilisers and healthy soil, constant genetic enhancement is vital to arrest India's falling wheat production.
"It is like the Ganges River," he notes. "The river's flow falls if one of its tributaries dries up. In the same way, wheat production falls if any one of the required components is absent. Right now the flow of new genes from gene banks has stopped."