Biotechnology assures leap in production

Tissue culture can change the face of agriculture, asserts Ajit Thomas, who heads a firm that has gone in a big way for biotechnology in the cultivation of plants and flowers.

By S Gopikrishna Warrier
Published: Wednesday 30 September 1992

AJIT THOMAS, 37, is chairman of A V Thomas & Co, one of south India's leading business houses owning plantations in Palghat and Idukki producing tea, spices and rubber. The company has now expanded into biotechnology and this year, it hopes to reap bumper harvests. Down To Earth interviewed him in Madras recently.

Starting with cardamom in 1986, your company is considered a pioneer in using biotechnology for producing cardamom, bananas, flowers and, now, orchid plants commercially. What made you adopt this techniques?
It began with cardamom. Internationally, Indian cardamom was becoming uncompetitive. The Gautemalan yields were much higher than Indian yields and the domestic market was very strong at that time. So we had to think of some way to increase our yields. The only way to do this was to multiply the yields through tissue culture. Simultaneously, we launched our banana project. Our orchid project is the most recent.

Tissue culture is not the answer to all of the farmer's needs. It is only one more tool that can be used as part of an integrated package of practices to increase productivity. The extra cost for this method is justified by the phenomenal increase in productivity. The increase is exponential.

Was the tissue culture technology you used imported, developed indigenously, or was it modified of imported technology?
There has been minimal import content. The technology that people offer is okay for lab-scale operations. But when we scale it up for commercial production, we run into problems. We have developed the commercial technology in our own laboratory. For cardamom, the initial laboratory technology was developed by the National Chemical Laboratory in Pune. But commercial production using this technology would have made the product very expensive. So we had to modify it. After all, the key to success in business is to produce the right product at the right cost. We were the first to start commercial production using biotechnology and the first commercial lab was ours.

But there must be many more today?
As far as I know, there are about 10 companies in the business. Some, like Indo-American Hybrid Seeds, have made heavy investments. I don't know how they will make themselves viable. Small companies would require a certain amount of capital before they can enter this field. Many of the new entrants put in heavy investments -- anything from Rs 10 crore to Rs 12 crore. Our initial investment was about Rs 2.5 crore and we invested Rs 1 crore in research and development.

What are your feelings about the issue of patents and royalties?
We have already faced a problem with exports. In India there is no system of patents and the result is that importing countries are wary of our quality. Now, we are gaining the confidence of Holland. We get the tissue for flowers from Holland, we multiply them and re-export the product back to that country. In doing this, we have to observe some amount of security because the product should not go out of the lab into other hands. Some stray incidents have happened in the past.

On the question of royalty we do not face a problem. The Dutch growers ask for only a very reasonable amount as they know the cost of collecting the products is very high. For example, in Brazil, 60 per cent of the royalty goes to the agent who collects the products and only 40 per cent goes to the Dutch grower. We do our business mostly with Dutch companies. With the USA, we deal mostly with common foliage plants that have no patent or proprietory rights. On an average, we export close to four million plants a year to both the Netherlands and USA, with a turnover of about Rs 3 crore. You seem to have achieved considerable success with Indian orchids?
Orchids have a lot of potential even in the domestic market. We started our orchid project in early this year and so far we have sold orchid seedlings worth about Rs 35 lakh to 500 women in the country. A good orchid plant can last upto two weeks in non-airconditioned rooms without wilting, but there is the problem of transportation when it comes to exporting the plants. For the products to be acceptable, they have to reach their destination within 48 hours.

What will be your thrust area in the future?
It will continue to be the export of our main products like lily bulbs, foliage and other plants. Domestically the thrust will be on cardamom, banana and orchid production.

We feel that it is vital that we bring down the costs of producing these plants. And that has been the thrust of our research efforts. Our main lab atthe Cochin Export Processing Zone has the capacity for producing 4 million plants annually. We had stagnated at 2 million for quite some time and even thought that we wouldn't be able to cross this figure. Now we produce 6 million and feel that we have the potential for producing upto 10 million to 12 million. And all this is without expanding the lab. We can do it by developing better processes. When you increase your production you can naturally bring costs down. Biotechnology has also revolutionised yields per plant, too. The yield that the company gets from conventional seedlings is about 200 kg per ha. What we expect to harvest from our biotechnologically raised plantations in Idukki and Palghat is to the tune of 400 to 500 kg per ha.

Some of the tissue cultured cardamom plants yield upto 1,100 kg per ha. Compare this to the national average of 60 kg per hectare. Of course, there are people who get yields up to 200 kg from conventional stock, using irrigation and other additional inputs. But with biotechnology there is a quantum leap in production, with help from genetics. Of course, there is an increase in seedling cost, but this increase is arithmethic, while the benefit is exponential.

But what about the disease-resistance and longevity of these plants?
Tissue cultured plants have a shorter yield cycle. There is a definite need to increase their disease resistance. It is difficult to say that the tissue cultured plants will not get diseases in their lifetime. Nobody can say that. If diseases can be kept away for three or four years, we should be happy that we have achieved at least this.

What is the scope of biotechnology?
We, as a company, still have to explore related areas like variations and mutations. So far, we have restricted ourselves to tissue culture. I don't believe in across-the-board application of biotechnology for all activities. I would hate to see tissue culture being used to raise monocultures, like the government does, because I believe that tissue culture is more of a tool for preserving rare varieties and to get better plants. In our plantations, we always mix our clones.

What are the new ventures you have in mind?
We are moving towards integrating our knowledge in tissue culture to raise better quality spices from which oils and oleoresins will be extracted.

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