|AGRICULTURE TRIBUNE||Monday, September 10, 2001, Chandigarh, India|
Need for new models in agriculture
They extract ‘life’ out of plants for good
PROF Debabrata Das is furious at learning that the Bengal College of Engineering and Technology is offering a course in biotechnology to 60 students of one batch alone. "Do you think that this is a course in humanities?" he asks the college authorities who fail to see reason, nonetheless. He is the Head of the Department of Biotechnology of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, the first of the IITs established 50 years ago. With the best infrastructure in the country, his department can offer research facility to only 11 scholars and the number of students, right from the B.Tech students to the M.Tech students, is still way below 60. In comparison, the infrastructure in the Bengal College of Engineering and Technology is zero, but this is the story of most biotechnology courses in universities all over India.
Prof Das, who has years of experience in biotechnology, worked closely with Dr P.K. Ghosh in the IIT, Delhi, and the Bombay Dyeing group before joining the IIT, Kharagpur. Biotechnology offered him a chance to work in areas of human healthcare and environment protection. He heads a department where extracting ‘life’ out of plants and organisms is routine, but here ‘life’ means life-saving drugs and environment friendly fuels.
Though the IIT is 50-year-old now, its biotechnology programme was introduced in 1986 and it instantly gained prominence in the institute and the government policy. With sponsors like the CSIO and the government, the department has written many success stories in the research field. Researchers here have been successful in mass propagation of plants in bioreactors, a technology used by the Tata Tea for getting 40,000 plants for cultivation in a finite space. When the department produced a low-cost gelling agent for plant tissue culture, it substituted another process marketed by pharmasium that was costly, all this when no one gave our biotechnologists a chance.
Like all of us, Prof Das and his team hate environment pollution, but unlike most of us, they are in a position to do something about it. They want to produce non-polluting fuels like hydrogen and have shown that this can be done. They recently produced molecular hydrogen through biological processes, which wasn’t easy. Hydrogen is a product of photosynthesis, but photosynthesis requires light, without which, hydrogen production is stopped. Prof Das and his team were able to isolate an organism called IITBT 08 that can produce hydrogen at a much faster rate compared to the other organisms. They based their research on the work of a Japanese scientist, Dr Taniso, who had used economic studies to show how energy production from biological sources was comparable to the one produced from usual energy sources like gasoline and ethanol.
Researchers here observed that there was an acute scarcity of cane molasses in distilleries in off-season as cane was a seasonal product. Prof Das developed a process to substitute cane molasses with starchy material for continuous production of ethanol.
The greatest success story of the department comes in a small size. It is Growtek — a special type of vessel in which any number of plants can be grown in the liquid medium instead of in the solid medium. In these little bioreactors, sandalwood, coffee and tea have been mass-produced. The inventors of this most successful patented product of the department are Prof S. Dey and Prof B.C. Bhattacharyya, research coordinators for the project. The advantage of growing the plants in the liquid medium is that, for observation, plants can be taken out along with the roots and replaced afterwards, all this with no damage to the plants. You can literally reach down to the root of the problem if the plant has one or grow an entire sandalwood forest in a small vessel and then scale it up.
Antheraea mylitta, an indigenous wild type tropical non-mulberry silkworm, produces an exotic variety of silk called tasar silk. Production of tasar silk not only provides employment, but also utilises the waste and drylands where nothing can be grown. Each year about 40 per cent of tasar silk production is destroyed due to a virus that produces grasserie disease in silkworms. The department conducted experiments for molecular characterisation of Antheraea mylitta cytoplasmic polyhedrosis virus. A mylitta larvae is a new and unique cytoplasmic polyhedrosis virus that has now been successfully isolated in the department laboratory and the problem has more or less been solved. Only trials farm trials have to be conducted now.
Have you heard of a plant called Vinca rosea or Catharanthus roseus? No? There is an alkaloid vinblastine in its shoots that is anti-carcinogenic or a weapon against cancer. However, it is present in too small a quantity to be mass-produced. Right now, 1 gm of anti-cancer drug extracted from this plant costs $ 1,000,000. The only way to make the production process economical, so that, even the poor can afford this medicine, is to increase the biomass of vinblastine which is what a dedicated woman researcher is trying to do in the IIT, Kharagpur. She hopes that someone will carry on her research till success is achieved.
Suppose there is an emergency, as it often is in India. Then, there will be persons who will require blood quickly. However, the existing blood tests are slow and lengthy. Researchers in the department are trying to develop rapid blood diagnostic test kit which can speed up the process and be useful during emergencies. The tests are based on c-reactive protein based on whole blood agglutination by a conjugated protein of monovalent lectin and Fab fragment of antihuman c-reactive immunoglobin. The researchers, again, are taking from nature, improving it and giving it back to nature, for these experiments.
With all these wonder products and patents, one might think that India has arrived in the WTO world, but Prof Das says that Indian scientists are rather not in the habit of filing for patents? "J.C. Bose believed that science should be free to all, but now, with the WTO and all these things, even oxygen might be patented some day. In the West, they patent an innovation or an idea as soon as it comes along. In India, when someone files for a patent, he or she has to answer many questions like how much is the industrial application of the product and what is its viability. At the initial stage of research, it is difficult to comment on these things. Time gap is important and we should be allowed to patent our initial investment in research because that will protect our initial findings and gradually we will reach the target," he says.
Regarding questions of ethics that biotechnology raises, Prof Das says that this point has to be sorted out. He says that there has been no problem so far with several products that have already been marketed, including those related to cross-breeding. problem of ethics is being faced mostly with genetically modified organisms and foods, but I believe that the future is safe," he says.
He said the issue of safety standards of bio-engineered foods should be taken care of by international bodies like the UNEP. "The Indian Department of Biotechnology has a cell which is looking after the bio-safety aspect and Dr P.K. Ghosh is particularly working on this only," he says.
When asked why couldn’t biotechnology survive without industrial monopolies, Prof Debabrata Das said, "There is a basic difference between biotechnology and conventional industry that we have here in India. Biotechnology can also be a small entrepreneurship, because with a small amount of investment, you can have a unit and product formation. Small units produce low-volume and high-value products, whereas most huge industries have high-volume and low-value products. The Union Government should encourage small entrepreneurs to go in for setting up biotechnology units because these require low space and low manpower."
On the controversial issues related to cloning, Prof Das said, "Cloning needs some time for its effects on environment to be known. It is too early to comment on it, but something good might indeed come out of it because scientists are trying to find out how diseases can be cured through genetic manipulations." He said something like the human genome project might be taken up in the department in future, though he couldn’t say when. Does it mean that future has hope for us? What we do know is that the answer lies in nature.
Need for new models in agriculture
BROWSING through the Survey, I found at least two things that can definitely apply to Punjab — the role of agriculture in reaching national policy objectives is much broader than the mere, albeit essential, function of producing food and fibers; and this role is likely to change over time to address society’s basic expectations.
Punjab farm experts often talk of an alternative to agriculture in respect of small and marginal farmers and land-less labour. Their argument is that small holdings are uneconomical and sustaining people will become a serious problem. In France, on the other hand, ‘’family farms’’ are being encouraged. Stress is to buttress agriculture, promote, motivate and help young people to settle on farms and fostering model focused on ‘’family’’, the bedrock of social relations. Special financial help is ensured for such ventures. Punjab can try out on its youth, unemployed and unemployable.
It is time to understand and practice ‘’multi-functionality’’ — the central focus of the international discussion on sustainable agricultural and rural development and on trade because multi-functionality of agriculture is global and multi-disciplinary. It is not that changing concepts in agriculture are not known to our farm scientists, economists and sociologist. Even bureaucrats know as do politicians. What is lacking is will. For instance, a plethora of reports and recommendations and research studies are available on what is required to be done in agriculture and rural development. Even the how part is known as is the why. The failure is where to begin, who will begin.
Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, shows fatigue syndrome. Yet one comes across traces of dynamism. But the dynamism is often damned becoming a damp squib in the absence of ‘’scientific motivation, involvement and commitment’’. The latest off-the-shelf from PAU is yet another 41-page report, ‘’Strategies for agricultural research and development — a plan for Punjab’’. This too will get lodged somewhere on the shelves to pass into history as a reference work.
The report is by Dr M.S. Bajwa, PAU’s Director of Research. The report makes sense. As do a lot many more that have preceded this one, brought out last month. Dr Bajwa talks of ‘’revitalising" research system and goes on to list how that can happen. He uses catchy phraseology and stresses on ‘’strategies’’ like ‘’precision agriculture, judicious use of right inputs at the right time and in the right way, efficient conservation of natural resources, multi-disciplinary and integrated approach, sustainability and profitability, cost-effectiveness, eco-efficient’’ etc.
His approach is on integrated research on gene, soil health, nutrition supply, water, pest and post-harvest management, food-processing, site specific technology generation based on socio-economic analysis, marketing and market intelligence, evolving system broadcasting information on prices and weather and, of course, maintaining quality in view of the global market competition. In France, region specific agriculture is encouraged. Some products are, in fact, named after the regions or towns. To recall some as an example — Champagne, Burgundy, Bresse poultry, Mutzig beer, Grenoble nuts, etc. The point is to highlight the specialisation of their products as also farming methods. Punjab has been talking of area specific cropping and promoting agri-processing by re-prioritising teaching, research and extension education, etc. Should Punjab not take a lead picking up ideas from Europe, more specifically CAP, resuscitating the state’s economy vis-a-vis agriculture, rural development, industry and trade along side creating avenues of employment by framing schemes for funding the youth to return to their roots in villages?
Punjab can do it. Let it also follow the five French-model strategies — meeting growing citizen demand for food safety and product quality; buttressing economic development and employment in an area subjected to special constraints; safeguarding the balance of territories (read Majha, Doaba and Malwa); ensuring sustainable management of wilderness(read un-cultivated, vast expanses) areas and natural resources; and assisting the training of the prime movers in agriculture and agribusiness, and contributing to the social cohesion of rural territories. The European models, experiences and examples mentioned here are only suggestive. Punjab can learn several lessons from the EU enabling sons of the soil find a new meaning to agriculture helping the state’s economy to look up.
Farm operations for September
The first fortnight of September is the optimum period of sowing of toria. Use short-duration variety PBT-37/TL-15 getting the field vacated well in time. Toria may be sown after applying 55 kg of urea and 50 kg of single superphosphate per acre.
Do not allow the crop to suffer for want of water at the pod development stage. Any stress at this stage causes drastic reduction in the yield of groundnut. Control the Tikka disease by spraying with wettable sulphur @ 500-750 g/acre in 200-300 litres of water per acre or with Bavistin/Derosal/Agrozim @ 50-60 g/acre in 100 litres of water per acre.
— Check various caterpillars feeding on foliage/pods of moong/mash by spraying 500 ml of Thiodan 35 EC or Ekalux 25 EC or 200 ml of Nuvan 100 m in 80 litres of water per acre. Pod borer complex infestation on arhar can be reduced by spraying 700 g Sevin 50 WP or 400 ml Hexasulfan 35 EC in 100 litres of water per acre.
— To control Cercospora leaf spot, spray the moong crop with Zineb 75 WP @ 400 g/100 litres of water per acre at 10 days interval twice or thrice.
— Sow maize for fodder production up to mid-September to have fodder for the scarcity period.
— Prepare the land for the sowing of berseem during the last week of September. Mixoats and sarson/raya in berseem to get first cutting early. Berseem seed should be free from kasi seed inoculate the berseem seed with Rhizobium culture. Apply 20 to 25 kg of urea and 185 kg of super phosphate/acre at the time of sowing berseem. If six tonnes of FYM has been applied, then 125 kg of superphosphate/acre will be sufficient. Where rye grass has been mixed in berseem, apply 10 kg of N (22 kg of urea/acre) after each cutting.
— Before sowing berseem, spray 400 ml/acre Basalin for the control of poa grass (guien) on a well-prepared seed bed.
— Preserve the surplus green fodder of maize or bajra as silage or hay to supplement the shortage of green fodder.
— The climatic conditions are ideal for sowing early varieties. Take out seed potato from the cold storage in the first fortnight of this month and spread in ventilated place under diffused sunlight in thin layers. Turn the surface of tubers one in a day and allow buds to sprout for a week. Sprouts should attain 0.5 to 1.0 on length before sowing.
— Use healthy and disease-free seed.
— Disinfect the tubers before sowing with solution of 0.5 per cent Allagol or with 0.25 per cent Emisan/Tafasan for 10 minutes.
— Drill 80 kg of urea, 155 kg of superphosphate, 40 kg of muriate of potash per acre at the time of sowing. Application of FYM @ 20 tonnes per acre and green manuring is beneficial for this crop so it should be applied.
— For weed control, use Atrataf 50 WP or Tafazine 50 WP @ 200 g or Stomp 30 EC @ 1.01/acre or Sencor 70 WP @ 200 g/acre as pre-emergence application or Gramoxone @ 500 ml per acre at the stage when most of the weeds have emerged and the potato crop showed 5 to 10 per cent emergence. Use 250 to 300 litres of water in knap sack sprayer and 100 litres of water with power sprayer.
— In case pea is to be sown for the first time on a field treat 40 kg of seed of early maturing varieties like Matter Ageta 6 or Arkal with pea culture. Apply 40 kg of Can, 155 kg of superphosphate and 50 kg of to muriate of potash per acre.
— To control weeds, spray Stomp 30 EC @ 1 litre/acre as preemergence application using 150-200 litres of water.
— Avoid early sowing to check wilt/root rot diseases. Control pea by treating seeds with Bavistin @ 1 g/kg seed.
— Avoid early sowing to check the damage caused by pea stem fly. At the time of sowing of peas, apply 3 kg of Thimet 10 G or 10 kg of Furadan 3 G in furrows for reducing the infestation by stem fly.
Sow small medium-sized bulbs at 30 cm x 30 cm to produce onion for table use. Apply 50 kg of CAN, 155 kg of superphosphate and 50 kg of muriate of potash per acre. Irrigate regularly. For seed production, plant large close neck true to type 3 to 4 bulbs of onion on 45 cm apart ridges. Keep plants at 30 cm to produce seed.
In the second fortnight of this month, apply 20 tonnes of well-rotten farmyard manure per acre and mix it into the soil. Dibble or drill 225 to 250 kg healthy cloves of garlic. Keep lines 15 cm and plants 10 cm apart. Irrigate immediately thereafter. Repeat watering once a week during this month.
Start sowing "desi" varieties of radish (Punjab Pasand and Punjab Safed), turnip (L-1, 4-white) and carrot (Selection 21, No 29) using a 4 to 5 kg seed rate of radish and carrot and 2 to 3 kg seed rate of turnip per acre keep ridges 45 cm and plants 7 to 8 cm apart. Cultivation of root crops on ridges help in better growth and development of roots and easy harvest.