India Infoline News Service
Mumbai, July 15, 2009

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Indian researchers developing nutritionally-enhanced crops with omega-3 fatty acids and improved rice varieties rich in protein and iron

With India’s population estimated to reach 1.3 billion by 2017, the Govt. of India estimates that we may be short of 14 million metric tons of food grains. A growing population and climate change have emphasized the need to meet rising food needs by improving India’s crop productivity through innovations in agriculture.

While the population grew at a compound annual growth rate of approx. 1.25 per cent over the past decade, rice productivity grew at a compound annual growth rate of only 0.8 per cent. With low productivity unable to meet the rising demand for food, there exists a need to increase production of food grains. In addition to improving productivity in crops like rice, the key challenges agriculture and plant scientists face includes improving nutritional content of our food, improving the environmental sustainability of agriculture, managing plant insects and disease, and improving the livelihoods of farmers who produce the nation’s food.

Several Indian Public and Private sector institutions are conducting extensive agriculture and plant research to increase food security and provide nutritionally-enhanced food to meet the nation’s growing food and nutrition needs. In rice, by combining conventional plant research methods with cutting-edge agriculture research, plant scientists are developing rice varieties for increased nutrition and productivity, i.e. with higher protein and iron content with resistance to diseases, insects and drought. Indian scientists are making significant contributions in an array of agriculture technology research projects in food crops.

For example, in Maharashtra, Bharati Vidyapeeth University’s Interactive Research School for Health Affairs (IRSHA) is conducting research to derive plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids. In Cuttack, the Central Rice Research Institute (CRRI) is developing rice varieties resistant to crop diseases and nutritionally-enhanced with beta carotene and iron fortification.

Dr. P. Ranjekar, Director of Research – Bharati Vidyapeeth University and Director – Interactive Research School for Health Affairs said, “With increasing awareness of healthy diets over the last few years, nutritional security has gained as much focus as food security. Our young growing nation needs more food, and yet demands more healthy food. Indian agriculture and plant research aims to provide more nutrition while eating less food. This by enhancing productivity and nutrition of food crops while addressing the environmental challenges of drought, insect pests, and weeds. Nutritionally-enhanced foods such higher iron and vitamin A content, omega-3 enriched plants that can reduce risk of chronic disease, and more are the need of the hour to help the nation achieve food and nutrition security.”

India has the world’s largest rice acres (43 million hectares) and is the world’s second largest producer of rice (96.43 million tones in 2007-08). Being staple food for a large part of the world’s population, rice is one of the most consumed cereal grains in India. To increase yields and enhance nutrition, improved rice varieties which have in-built insect protection, and are fortified with high iron and zinc are being developed in our country today. Biotech-enhanced rice varieties could double the farmer’s productivity and save the nation’s traditional low-yielding varieties from extinction by delivering higher yields. New varieties of rice that are tolerant to drought, salinity and cold, can provide better adaptation to the threats of climate change.

Dr. G. J. N. Rao, Head Plant Improvement – Central Rice Research Institute (CRRI), Cuttack, Orissa said, “Biotech-enhanced rice has a few clear advantages – increased crop productivity, reduced pesticide usage, and better nutrition. Since India is also home to the world’s largest number of malnourished people, most of whom are women and children, CRRI is working on developing nutritionally-enhanced rice for high protein and high-iron. We are also developing rice varieties that will be resistant to diseases, insects and drought.”

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications (ISAAA) Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2008, recognized biotech rice as the most important of the new biotech crops that are now ready for adoption.

Omega-3 fatty acids are a crucial part of every cell membrane of the human body. The human brain and retina of the eye have the highest concentration of omega three fatty acids (25% and 50% respectively). Omega-3 incorporated to dietary elements for expecting and lactating mothers play a crucial role in increasing cognitive ability in children, especially during their brain development stage. On the other hand, deficiency of omega-3 in modern human diet promotes chronic inflammation, propagation of cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis and auto-immune diseases. Since, the human body cannot manufacture Omega-3 healthy acids on its own; these essential fatty acids need to be incorporated through diet patterns.

Plant-based sources of these fatty acids are an important alternative to fish as a source. Flax is a unique plant which has a rich combination of fat, protein and dietary fiber and can be used directly for human consumption through fortification and as animal feed to enrich omega-3 fatty acids in animal and processed food. It is thus making a mark on the world’s food supply as a functional food.

With support from the Govt. of India’s Dept. of Biotechnology over the past four years, a team of researchers at Interactive Research School for Health Affairs (IRSHA) led by Dr. Abhay Harsulkar are developing crops that produce omega-3 fatty acids in their seeds. The team has successfully identified the plant genes responsible for the production of omega-3 fatty acids from Flax, and is transferring these beneficial genes to other plants.

Dr. Abhay Harsulkar, Scientist – IRSHA, Bharathi Vidyapeeth University said, “Since omega-3 fatty acids are crucial for human health yet endangered nutrients due to severe depletion of dietary resources, it is essential to increase their availability in our food chain. Novel sources of omega-3 fatty acids in the form of common dietary foods will have considerable impact on society where diseases can be tackled even before their occurrence. The higher availability and consumption of omega-3 can lead to a healthier population in the near future.”

Dr. Sajiv Anand, Director, All India Crop Biotechnology Association (AICBA) added, “Public and Private sector agriculture research can make India a leading contributor to national and global food security. Based on India’s large pool agriculture scientific talent; public and private sector R&D investment; combined with a large farmer producer base – India can lead in agri research and repeat the global success of Indian IT with agriculture technology. Growing adoption of biotech-enhanced crops could contribute significantly to achieving the UN’s Millennium Development Goal of helping to reduce poverty and hunger by 50% by 2050.”

The Govt. of India has established a robust policy and Regulatory system comprising three ministries (Ministry of Science & Technology, Environment & Forests, and Agriculture) and a wide panel of food, plant and scientific experts to ensure safe introduction of plant biotechnology for the benefit of the nation. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) gives approval for biotech-enhanced crops only after completion of rigorous scientific studies and its products being safe for agriculture, environment, human beings, and animals.

In India, Bt cotton is the only biotech crop technology approved for cultivation, and India has become the world’s second largest producer and exporter of cotton by doubling that nation’s cotton productivity within seven years of the launch of bt cotton in 2002.

Various public and private sector institutions are conducting cutting-edge research to apply the benefits of biotechnology to plants and agriculture. Some of the include the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), Indian Institute of Horticultural Research, Bangalore (IHRI), National Botanical Research Institute, Lucknow (NBRI), National Centre for Plant Genome Research, New Delhi (NCPGR), National Research Centre for Weed Science, Jabalpur (NRCWS), Central Rice Research Institute, Cuttack (CRRI), Directorate of Rice Research, Hyderabad (DRR), Central Potato Research Institute, Simla (CPRI), and Sugarcane Breeding Institute, Coimbatore (SBI), are important public sector institutions involved in agri technology research. In addition, the University of Delhi (UDSC), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (JNU), Madras University, Chennai (CAS), Osmania University, Hyderabad (OUH), Madurai-Kamaraj University, Madurai (MKU), Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore (TNAU), University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore and Dharwad (UASB, UASD) also have crop development initiatives.

Further autonomous institutions engaged in research in crop development include the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics, Hyderabad (ICRISAT), The Energy Research Institute, New Delhi (TERI), M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai (MSSRF), and Entomology Research Unit, Loyola College, Chennai (ERLCC). These in addition to the private sector which includes companies such as Avestagen, BASF, Bayer, DuPont, Dow Agrosciences, Mahyco, Meta-Helix, Monsanto, Sungrow, Syngenta and others.

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