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Private-public partnership to make transgenic crops affordable

R. Balaji

Coimbatore , Nov. 14

A public private partnership between Mahyco, academic institutions and private sector seed companies in India, Bangladesh and Philippines aims to make transgenic crops affordable to more farmers in the region.

Under the USAID-supported project, a number of varieties and hybrids of genetically modified eggplant (brinjal) resistant to fruit and shoot borers are being developed. Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co Ltd (Mahyco) is providing the technology to the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University ; University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad; Indian Institute of Vegetable Research, Varanasi; University of Philippines, Los Banos; Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute and a private sector seed company, East West Seeds, Bangladesh.

They are all members of the public-private partnership, Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II, led by Cornell University of the US. It seeks to make the transgenic crop accessible to a wider section of farmers in this region. The coordinator for the project in India is Sathguru Management Consultants Pvt Ltd, Hyderabad, which is Cornell's representative in India. The University of Philippines will handle the implementation in the South-East Asian region.

Addressing newspersons, on a tour of the project sites organised by Sathguru, Mr K. Vijayarghavan, its Director, said through the partnership, the transgenic eggplant developed for different regions would be available to farmers at an affordable cost. The public institutions would aim at cost recovery, while the private players will price it on a benefit-sharing basis. More than 30 members were partners in the project, under which work is on in 10 transgenic crops across the region.

The eggplant was selected based on extensive consultation, which identified that this crop would benefit several farmers in the region — over 25 million.

Dr Usha Barwale Zehr, Joint Director of Research, Mahyco, said in India alone, over 5.1 lakh hectares were under brinjal cultivation and the annual production was estimated at about 8.2 million tonnes. The fruit and shoot borer, an insect pest, affects over 50-70 per cent of the crop even after continuous insecticide application.

Using transgenic technology will prevent such wastage and increase marketable yield. Apart from the varieties under development by the public sector institutions, Mahyco itself is developing four transgenic hybrid brinjal varieties.

There would be enough varieties and hybrids to cover most of the brinjal-growing regions in India, she said.

The limited trials, in its second year now, and statutory safety tests had been completed. Once the appropriate clearances were received, they would be able to go in for large-scale trials, which would be followed by commercial sales. Work on the crop started in 2000, she said.

While the benefit to the public institutions is obvious, what value does Mahyco derive from this partnership?

Mr Raju Barwale, Managing Director, Mahyco, said it was in the wider reach of the technology and the increased level of awareness of biotechnology and transgenic crops. This would lead to increased acceptability if more farmers directly experience the benefits of the technology.

The company was targeting release by late 2006 or in 2007, once the authorities gave the approvals. The tests were positive and there was a basis for optimism, he said.

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