This is excerpt of an interview with one of the leading professional dealing with agri-biotechnology.The interview is provided as is without any editorial oversight by us.
In March, K.K. Narayanan— one of the Founder-Directors of Metahelix Life Sciences— exited the company after 15 years. In 2010, he sold the agri-biotechnology company to the Tatas but remained Managing Director as part of the deal. Narayanan continues to be an advisor to the Tata group.
The focus crops for Metahelix are cotton, rice, maize, millets (bajra) and a few vegetables. Here, K.K. Narayanan discusses with the writer the arduous but persistent growth journey of genetically-modified crops in India, and his views on the government strategy to double farmers’ incomes.
No new genetically-modified (GM) crop has been approved in India after Bt cotton in 2002. At Metahelix, was there any hesitancy about persisting with agri-biotechnology?
This is a question that often comes up, particularly from investors and the parent company. But they realise you need to have a foot in the door. One day, when the door opens, you should be there. Having invested so much money, time and the intellect of so many people, it would be foolish to step back. We have revenue streams coming from hybrids; part of it you set aside. It does have a hit on the bottom line but that is a conscious decision. It is a long-term investment.
Do you have difficulty attracting talent?
Those who are choosing this field of science are confused and some are not very confident. But the opportunities are huge for a largely agrarian country like India. To fulfil their promises of equitable development, our political bosses will have to leverage the technology.
Bt cotton is under price control. The Agriculture Minister believes it is expensive. Is that what farmers tell you?
Farmers are wise. They take commercial decisions. I don’t think the government should intervene in prices. When we talk of “free market play”, you need a free market. On the one side, you are choking the pipeline of alternate or competitive technologies. So there are a few people who have a head start. (Monsanto’s Bt cottonseed technology has more than 90 percent share of the market-ed). Now the hurdle has been raised to such a high level that nobody else is able to cross it. And then you cry “monopoly, monopoly.” This is an artificially created monopoly. If the regulatory system can be scientific and rational, these problems can be eased. Indian companies, both in the public and private sectors, can develop competitive technologies. Farmers need to have a choice.
Does the present regulatory system help incumbents?
It is inadvertently creating a monopoly. They (incumbents) are also having trouble because they cannot bring newer versions. Today, the entry barrier is regulation— it is not the capability to develop technologies.
Our political leaders associate agri-biotechnology with American companies.
If you look from the stratosphere, you will see that one company is giving the technology to everybody. You are not realising why the other companies are not coming up to that level. It is because of regulatory hurdles. We have developed Bt cotton with stacked genes for bollworm resistance. It is different from that of Monsanto, the leading provider today. We have Bt rice and herbicide-tolerant maize. These are not imported technologies. We have developed them here.
How long have you been waiting?
We have been waiting since 2007. We were one of the few companies to get approval for our own Bt cotton. But it was a single-gene product that protected against the leaf-eating caterpillar. We could not go to the market because it has moved to double genes. So we developed (Bt cotton with) other genes which give protection against bollworms. But we have had no success (with field trials) since 2007-08.
What about Bt rice?
We did a field trial in 2009. After that, we have not had permission. In 2010-11 we got GEAC (Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, the apex regulatory body) permission for large-scale field trials in Andhra Pradesh. But A.P. was not giving us the NOC (no objection certificate) which became mandatory after February 2010. The permission lapsed because it was for one season. We went back to GEAC for open-ended permission. By the time they gave it, A.P. was no longer A.P.
So we had to apply to Telangana for NOC and that is still pending. It is 2016 and you can imagine how much time is being wasted.
And herbicide- tolerant maize?
We have just selected the (DNA recombination) event and have applied for trials. It is still at an early stage. But if commercialisation was within sight, we could have easily fast-tracked it. When the present government came, we were quite hopeful. But suddenly you find other arms like the Swadeshi Jagran Manch or the Bharatiya Kisan Union pulling in the other direction. The Maharashtra government gave permission for field trials and, before it happened, it pulled back.
Genetically-modified mustard, DMH-11, developed by Deepak Pental of Delhi University is awaiting approval for commercial cultivation. Metahelix has the rights to DMH 4 which is a non-GM mustard hybrid. How as it been received?
Oh, it is certainly better in terms of yield and productivity than open pollinating varieties. That is a given because of hybrid vigour. What is important is not whether it is absolutely better but whether it can compensate for the negatives with increased yields or revenues. Like any product, it comes with some challenges. It takes five days more to mature. Farmers feel this will affect planting of the next crop. The plant habit may be important. If it grows too tall, it is difficult to harvest. Labour is no longer cheap and availability is an issue. The seed size is small. Famers prefer bolder seeds. Actually, what is important is the oil content.
The Central Institute of Cotton Research believes that India does not need Bt technology. With high-density planting of short duration cotton, it says, the crop can be harvested before bollworms arrive.
For a country as large and diverse as India, you need a multi-pronged approach. I say this even in the context of Vitamin-A rice or Golden Rice. Some people say, give carrot or green leaves and solve the problem. If you are giving Golden Rice, is somebody preventing you from giving a carrot? No. (Bt) hybrids and high-density planting are not mutually exclusive. Ultimately, you have to test it out, validate it. Our farmers are wise enough. They will pick only the good ones. The others they will throw into the Bay of Bengal.
In May, the government tried to give a compulsory license on patented Bt cotton using the Essential Commodities Act.
Compulsory licensing is bad. If you stifle the system, you are going to impact innovation. Compulsory licensing is warranted where there is an emergency, a famine or a war-like situation. Bringing cotton seed into the Essential Commodities Act was an arbitrary decision.
Do you think the government has a strategy to double farmers’ income by 2022?
There are a few things which should be considered: increase productivity and reduce the cost. This can be achieved by leveraging technology. It is not up there. It is not blue sky. It has been proven and there is enough evidence. Take the example of Bt cotton itself. Studies have shown how incomes have gone up and that is the reason why 95 percent of farmers are cultivating it.
The other aspect, do not stop with production. There is a huge scope in this country for value addition. For example, there is an estimate which says that the farmer who produces the bean gets 1/20,000th the price we pay for the coffee we drink here (at Café Coffee Day in Bengaluru).Why not make it 1/200? And, here again, there is huge scope for technological intervention.
Is there a GM solution to alleviate the shortage of pulses?
Some of the major pests which infect cotton also affect pulses. So if you have a Bt solution you are actually saving on pesticides and improving productivity. What these technologies do is actually stabilise production. The uncertainty with regard to production is, to a large extent, eliminated or mitigated.
Bt cotton is an example. The technology only mitigates the impact of bollworms on yield. So the farmer puts more inputs and produces more. It is a kind of insurance. If you give that for pulses, farmers will give more inputs to increase productivity. Today, our productivity in pulses is abysmal.