Agri-biotechnology Bt cotton

Punjab Ag University is Testing Many Varieties and Hybrids of Bt Cotton: Research Director Gumber

In a letter to the Prime Minister dated 6 October, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has urged disapproval for commercial release of genetically-engineered mustard citing among other reasons, the alleged failure of Bt cotton. But Punjab Agricultural University is testing out the technology on many of its varieties and hybrids, proving it is still effective. Vivian Fernandes caught up with R K Gumber, the University’s director for research at a mela it had organized for farmers in Bhatinda. Excerpts from that interview.

Can you tell us something about the trials at Faridkot research station on longer-staple desi cotton?

It is long staple arboreum cotton (gossypium arboreum, a variety of Asiatic cotton). Generally, we have a length of 17-18 mm (in desi cotton). We are trying to make it spinnable. Our earlier varieties are not spinnable. There is great scope. And this arboreum is used as absorbent cotton and for making denims, bed sheets and so on. With better length it will be more useful.

Punjab Agricultural University is also working on Bt cotton isn’t it?

We are in the process of developing Bt in stages. One is with Gujarat State Seed Corporation where our hybrid is almost at the final stage. Maybe next year it will come for multi-location evaluation. If it performs better we will recommend it for commercial release. We will evaluate it across zones. Certainly we are sure about the bio-efficacy or its effectiveness against bollworms. It is the same gene which Monsanto has (which has gone off-patent).

Second we have signed an MOU with (Delhi University’s geneticist and its former vice-chancellor) Deepak Pental regarding event BG2E 13 which is very effective against bollworms. Already we are in the second year of the process for conversion of our lines into Bt varieties. This year we had backcross 1 plants. We are going to get BC 2 which we will grow in the off season. We are taking minimum two crops in one year. Once we complete four backcrosses we will go in for multi-location evaluation.

Third, we are signing an MOU with National Botanical Research Institute, Lucknow. I got the green signal from NBRI today (29 September) itself. That is for whitefly resistance. If we get the seed in 15-20 days we will start from the off-season itself, that is from November. We will do the crop in glass houses in protected conditions and start converting the lines into transgenic ones.

Lastly, we are evaluating 20 Bt varieties, not hybrids, which are undergoing the first year of evaluation. That is an extensive evaluation in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. Throughout India we are evaluating.  In the north we are evaluating at five locations.  Hopefully we will get one or two very good varieties which hopefully GEAC (Genetic Enginering Appraisal Committee) will approve for cultivation.

Basmati prices have fallen. Are Punjab farmers diversifying out of rice?

We are creating awareness about rice. There is a limitation with basmati. We have to export it. Domestic demand is not high. We have to restrict the area so as to meet export demand. Last year farmers had increased area to 8 lakh ha which was the reason for basmati prices falling (below that of ordinary rice).  This year the area planted is around 5 lakh ha. We expect a good price.

This is the time of the year when farmers prepare their fields for sowing wheat. They burn paddy stubble and this creates a lot of pollution.

If you had heard my lecture, I was suggesting one machine ─ happy seeder. By keeping straw in the field itself you can sow wheat. Paddy straw can  be used as mulch. Crop will be very good. Weed problem will be very less. Then we have given the technology for production of biogas from paddy straw, for production of mushrooms and for balers which can make bales for use as fuel.

What has been the response?

Not as much as we were expecting. We were expecting a good response. Every farmer cannot make biogas or make bales and take it to a power plant. Using a happy seeder is easy and I told farmers during my lecture that every farmer must use it.

(Top photo of R K Gumber at a farmers’ rally in Bhatinda by Vivian Fernandes)


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