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GM crops can meet India's food, biofuel needs

MUMBAI (Reuters) - India, which recorded the fastest growth in genetically modified (GM) crop adoption globally, could attain food self sufficiency once it allows commercialisation of GM crops, the head of a global research body said on Monday.

“India can become self sufficient in food production by use of biotechnology in food crops,” Clive James, chairman of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, told Reuters in an interview.

India, with a shortage in wheat, edible oils and a tight supply in rice, has a 250-billion-rupee food security mission, aimed at producing an additional 8 million tonnes of wheat, 10 million tonnes of rice and 2 million tonnes of pulses in 4 years.

India, the world’s second-biggest wheat producer, bought 5.5 million tonnes of the grain in 2006 and 1.8 million tonnes last year, igniting global commodity markets.

It is the world’s second biggest importer of edible oils with imports meeting over 40 percent of demand. It banned non-basmati rice exports to meet domestic need, after 2007/08 summer output was seen stagnant.

“The story of Bt cotton in India is remarkable....it can replicate the success in food crops,” said James.

India surpassed the U.S. to become the second biggest producer of cotton in 2006/07, after adopting GM crops.

India’s GM cotton area is estimated at 6.33 million hectares or 66 percent of the total cotton area in 2007/08, up from 3.69 million hectares in 2006/07, according to Cotton Advisory Board.

India allowed commercial cultivation of bacillus thuringiensis or Bt cotton, the country’s first GM crop in 2002, leading to protests from activists, who say GM crops are a health hazard. This delayed approval of GM food crops.

India’s first expected GM food crop is brinjal. Field trials of GM brinjal started in August 2007 and is expected to be commercialised by 2009, said C.D Mayee, a senior scientist, and chairman Agricultural Scientists Recruitment Board.

“Among food crops the big opportunity is in rice,” said James. India, second largest rice producer, is field testing GM rice, and expects commercialisation by 2011, Mayee said.

In rice, India is competing with China, the largest producer. China is in final stages of commercialising GM rice, James said.

BIO-FUEL OPPORTUNITY

“Biotech can solve bio-fuel needs of the world...India, the second biggest producer of sugar, is likely to gain,” James said.

Mayee said India is working towards getting technology for developing GM sugarcane with better ethanol output from Brazil.

India is sitting on a stock pile of sugar with output of about 27.5 million tonnes and a carryover stock of over 6 million tonnes against an annual consumption of about 20 million tonnes.

James, however, said application of biotech in jatropha, the energy crop, which leads India’s biotech campaign, will be possible only after the first generation of GM food, feed and fiber crops are developed.

“The biggest risk associated with this technology in India is not using it,” James said.

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