Glamorous and profitable, too

Biotechnology, which holds the answers to many persistent problems such as controlling disease and increasing food production, has tremendous potential in cash-strapped India. But to succeed, it needs a helping hand from industry.

By Nitya Jacob
Published: Monday 31 August 1992

Glamorous and profitable, too

Student researchers at work in (Credit: Pradip Saha / cse)INDIAN scientists are seeking solutions to such persistent problems as population, disease, hunger and pollution in a new clutch of technologies, collectively called biotechnology, which makes use of living organisms and their components -- genes, cells, proteins and enzymes -- to produce desired products.

Research in this field is coordinated by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) through 13 task forces, set up keeping national priorities in mind. The task forces are made up of experts from different institutions concerned with biotechnology -- Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and Indian Council of Medical Research -- as well as DBT's own research institutes.

These task forces are pursuing the goal of using biotechnology to achieve spectacular results in fields as diverse as agriculture and the training of experts. Take, for instance, raising the milk yield of cattle in India. Current biotechnology research promises to double present milk production to 100 million tonnes annually by 2000. Such an increase is essential if the country is to meet the nutritional needs of its population. If biotechnology was not used and given that milk production increases by about 4 per cent annually, production in 2000 would just about touch 75 million tonnes per year.

Biotechnologists assigned to the task force on animals are tackling the milk problem through embryo transfer, a technique that involves implanting the fertilised embryo of a superior breed in a host mother, which would result in a rapid increase of the population of high-yielding cattle. The technology involves artificially inseminating a superior breed female with semen from a superior bull and then transferring the embryo to a host mother. The offspring would be of the superior breed. The programme's high point has been a quantum jump in the success rate of recovery and preservation of live embryos from high-yielding cattle.

Another area of concentrated biotechnology activity is edible oils. Their import burnt a hole in the national wallet last year to the tune of Rs 1,000 crore. DBT's task force on plantation crops launched a demonstration project to investigate the usefulness of the oil palm, reportedly the richest source of edible oil among all oil-bearing plants and reached the conclusion that an oil palm plantation can generate an income of Rs 35,000 per ha annually for upto 30 years.
Tissue culture technique As the oil-bearing property of the oil palm was relatively unknown in India, DBT undertook the task of making it a popular plantation crop by importing seeds, germinating them and then multiplying the number of seedlings, using the tissue culture technique. This technique involves using a single cell or a small tissue of cells to grow the whole plant. The catch is to find the right medium in which to grow the cell and to identify which plant is good enough to propagate.

DBT started demonstration projects in 1989 in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and they are scheduled to conclude in 1993. But, already, the interest of industrialists has been aroused and at least two major business houses -- Godrej and Thapars -- have plans to invest in oil palm plantations. The demonstration projects have also brought immediate benefits to about 4,000 villagers in the tri-state area, for the oil palms planted on their land are expected to yield beginning next year.

Unlike other plantation crops, oil palm is environmentally benign and can be intercropped with fruit, vegetables and pulses, so that farmers gain an extra income and are freed from dependence on a single crop. Ramachandran said DBT teams were sent to Costa Rica, from where oil palm seedlings were imported initially, and to Ivory Coast and Malaysia, where oil palm plantations have existed for decades. "They did not see any way the crop could be harmful to the environment," he disclosed.

Biotechnology has notched successes in other areas, too. Faced with the pressing need to increase the country's food production, the DBT has initiated research to identify hardier specimens of four crops -- rice, wheat, chick-pea and rape-mustard. This quartet was identified on the basis of a nationwide prioritisation programme carried out by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research. The National Chemical Laboratory in Pune has been using gene mapping -- reading the genetic structure of an organism -- to identify a rice gene that is resistant to certain diseases. And, the Tata Energy Research Institute in Delhi has crossed wild, disease-resistant varieties of rape-mustard with cultivated varieties to get a hardier hybrid.

The work on chick-peas being done at Haryana Agricultural University (HAU) in Hissar is especially significant because there has been a steady decline in the availability of pulses, the poor person's main source of protein. HAU scientists have used hybridisation to develop disease-resistant varieties of chick-pea and the Centre of Plant Molecular Biology at Jawaharlal National University (JNU) in Delhi is using gene mapping to identify chick-pea strains that are resistant to drought and salinity. The JNU researchers are hoping to transfer their chick-pea development to wheat because this would enable the increase of yields of wheat grown in arid and saline soils.

"We are confident that once these projects fructify," said Ramachandran, "we will be able to meet India's foodgrains production target of 240 million tonnes by 2000".

Given the heavy cuts in budget allocations for education, Ramachandran feels much of the money for biotechnology education, he said, will have to come from industry and this is only fair because most of the graduates would be obtaining employment in the private sector. This seems to have begun already, for Southern Petrochemical Industries Corp (SPIC) is currently sponsoring a four-year programme at Anna University in Madras.

The biotechnology industry is poised for a huge leap in turnover over the next eight years, from Rs 200 crore at present to Rs 10,000 crore. Total investment so far has been less than Rs 200 crore, but Ramachandran predicts that beginning next year, investment will be between Rs 150-200 crore each year. "I see industry investing in everything from floriculture to medicines, but I cannot say how much investment will take place in different areas and when", he added.

Biotechnology plants
It is in anticipation of this exponential development that DBT has set up Biotech Consortium of India Ltd (BCIL) to streamline industrial purchases of new technology. Six financial institutions and 20 private companies have contributed to the equity of BCIL, which is expected to interface with the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, the Central and state governments and with industry to facilitate the setting up of biotechnology plants. Ranbaxy Laboratories and Lupin are two companies that have already been licensed by DBT to produce Rs 55 crore worth of pregnancy detection kits annually.

Biotechnology also offers investment opportunities to those operating in the small-scale sector as capital requirements for a biotechnology plant can be as low as Rs 30 lakh. As such, it promises to widen employment opportunities in the country's smaller towns, several of whom have industrial estates aimed at the small-scale sector. Furthermore, as much of biotechnology's thrust in India is in agriculture and the related fields of animal husbandry, floriculture, horticulture and aquaculture, it would boost development in rural areas and check migration from rural to urban centres.

The country has a handful of biotechnology success stories to date, from herd improvement to increased milk yields, hardier crops to food production, vaccines to check children's diseases such as measles, polio and diphtheria and flowers to grace many a table at home and abroad. But the nation can hope for more successes only if projects are carefully identified and steps taken to ensure a sufficient availability of trained scientists.

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