India is looking to double its farm income and output by 2022, and cut greenhouse gas emissions per calories. Davor Pisk, Global COO of Swiss seeds and pesticides group Syngenta, shares his views with Business Today's Anilesh S. Mahajan on why India must embrace technology to reduce its carbon footprint while improving yield. Edited excerpts::
Indian agriculture faces dual challenges. It has to resist impacts of climate change as well as improve its yield. How can Syngenta help achieve this goal?
In the last few years, we have focused on making agriculture more sustainable and much more environment-friendly. We succeeded in developing a new seed variety, which reduces the cycle time from plantation to harvest. Hence, there is less exposure to uncertainty and climate change. The growers require much less time to achieve his yields. There are rice hybrids that reduce the crop cycle from 140 to 110 maturity days. This also reduces water consumption. We are successful in developing technologies which can withstand climate change. We have a variant of watermelon, which growers in tropical and temperate conditions can grow around the calendar. So are veggies such as cauliflower, capsicum, hot pepper and tomato, among others. In most cases we have been successful in reducing the crops' cycle by 10-15 days. The most important contribution we can make is by increasing the yield of the crop in a more sustainable way. If we can increase yield per hectare of land, which will result in using less water, less land and lower green house gases (GHG) per calorie of production. The world needs to have food security and meet its food needs - the more efficient we are in producing these calories, the more efficient will we be in reducing our carbon footprint.
Most of your competitors and coleagues are talking about reducing water consumption in farming. How successful have you been in achieving it?
Our focus is on more crop per drop. The idea is more dynamic. It includes new seed varieties, complimented with new agriculture practices based on science and technology with the sole idea of more yield per unit of water. When it comes to rice production, for example, we have developed a new variant of crop, which is more tolerant to draught-like situations. It uses moisture more efficiently to give higher yields on drought-stressed land. Even by reducing the crop cycle, we can cut consumption of water. There are certain innovations we succeeded in, in the recent past, to take water-efficient technologies to a different level with our draught-tolerant seeds and optimised irrigation systems. We also help growers to understand the use of correct herbicides, which is effective in reducing the need to plough, which in turn will improve the soil's ability to absorb water - protecting it against erosion and water run-offs. All these technologies help growers to protect crops from vagaries of climate change.
How are you helping growers to understand their soil type better?
The Indian government has taken initiatives to make growers understand the soil types and their impact on agriculture. At the Syngenta learning centers we also teach growers how to combine seeds with a soil type and the correct protocols to follow. Separately, the growers also have the options of seed treatment products, which are used to control diseases or insect pests present during early seedling growth. All this assure optimum establishment of the crop. For example, Dividend is a fungicidal seed treatment product aimed at giving complete protection to seed and crop during the initial days. It has a broad spectrum of control against seed-borne and soil-borne diseases, and is highly cost-effective with outstanding yield response. Consistency during crop emergence and greater emergence percentage sets the stage for a healthy crop. Better root development leads to greater uptake of nutrients from the soil.
Are there other technologies that India should look at to ensure food security?
The game changer is marker-assisted breeding or molecular-assisted breeding, which provides a dramatic improvement in efficiency. Here, breeders select plants with desirable combinations of genes, minimising the long "wait-and-see" period in traditional plant breeding. A molecular marker is a genetic tag that identifies a particular location within a plant's DNA sequences. Plant breeders use genetic markers to identify the versions of specific genes associated with a desired trait. This allows them to predict and guide performance at early stages of development.
As the outcome of the breeding process is optimised at the gene level, breeders are able to significantly speed up the process to develop plants with new properties that are beneficial to the consumer - improved taste, without incorporating undesirable foreign genes.
It is also important to look at biotechnology in the context of climate change. The GM technology introduced in crops helps fight the various stresses that affect growth. The herbicide tolerant technology addresses weeds that compete with the plant for sunlight, nutrients and water. The BT technology addresses pests that affect plant productivity. There are others that address various climatic stresses like moisture, drought, etc.
There were controversies surrounding GM crops in India. What's your take on it?
The controversies around the commercialisation of GM technologies were, perhaps, not such a positive development for creating the right environment to bring science-based new technologies to the marketplace. Sygenta has a large portfolio based on GM technologies in North and South America. It is also increasing its market in Asia. But we don't have any commercial product in India. In Asia, Vietnam and Philippines we have GM corn and we are expanding in other markets.
Is there similar resistance to GM crops in Europe?
We do see a lot of consumers having reservation against GM crops in Europe as well. We know that this technology is regarded as safe by regulators. It is not a question about the safety, but consumer acceptance. Some people have also shared their concerns on the environmental concerns related to monoculture. But we believe GM technology is an important tool and option for growers to address the existing challenges, which are not easily addressed through other means. Therefore, we believe growers should have access to this technology. We continue to educate politicians, regulators and consumers about the benefits of this technology. Frankly, in Europe, there are abundant supplies of agriculture produce and consumers can afford to pay high prices for them. In other parts of the world, we don't have that luxury. We do need access to this technology to provide affordable and safe food to the growing populations. We continue to educate all stakeholders about the good side of GM. There are many reasons to adopt this technology and very few reasons to reject it.
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