An in-depth overview on the global seed industry. From rice research in Australia to legal action in India.
International Rice Research Institute researchers, in cooperation with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, have discovered the genetic information responsible for “chalkiness” in rice, an unwanted trait which, according to the IRRI, can lower the value of a crop by 25 percent.
Chalky areas in rice, caused when starch granules fail to develop properly, are opaque rather than translucent. “If rice is chalky, it often breaks in the mill, contributing to post-harvest loss. In our long-term studies, we show that for every percent increase in chalk, there is a one percent decrease in head rice yield,” explains Melissa Fitzgerald, head of the IRRI’s grain quality and nutrition research. The breakthrough is significant for its potential to dramatically improve profits, as “chalk is one of two parameters that are used to grade rice on the international market.”
To locate the genetic regions of the rice genome which control chalkiness, Fitzgerald’s team used phenotyping tools to measure the chalk in multiple varieties, as well as genomic techniques for genome-wide genotyping and bioinformatic technologies. If all goes well, Fitzgerald’s team expects an “excellent” reception on the international market, although it might take some time to create new varieties. “Different countries have different expectations of grain quality, and chalk is just one parameter of quality,” says Fitzgerald. “We have one variety with all the good genes against chalk that would suit some areas of south-east Asia, but it could take a number of years to place these genes in all popular varieties using conventional breeding techniques.”
The II International Society for Horticulture Science Genetically Modified Organisms in Horticulture (GMO 2011) symposium was held in Mpumalanga, South Africa September 11-15. The theme of the conference, which discussed the role of plant biotechnology for horticulture in the developing world, was “Paving the Way for a Sustainable Future.” The event aimed to provide “an opportunity for those involved in the research, development, testing, regulation, assessment and management of GMOs worldwide to share experiences with colleagues from around the globe.”
According to organizing committee member Gurling Bothma, who is also biosafety manager for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Pretoria, the conference is a step forward in the discussion of biotechnology for horticulture in the region. “GMO seed is not currently used in the horticultural industry. Maize, cotton and soya totally dominate the scene and there the multinational players control the game,” he says. However, Bothma’s outlook is optimistic. “As you know, many small influences that have no major impact in the present may play a bigger role in the future,” he says. “So hopefully this symposium will play a role in the future paths of researchers, enabling them to do better, more relevant and ethical research that will hopefully lead to useful products down the line.”
India’s National Biodiversity Authority is expected to pursue legal action against Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco), which is partially owned by Monsanto, for allegedly taking samples of at least 10 varieties of the GM eggplant brinjal for development without permission.
Although Bt brinjal had been approved for commercial development, in February 2010 a moratorium was placed on its use in order to allow time for further testing and social acceptance. Shortly afterward, the Environment Support Group, a non-governmental organization, filed a formal complaint which claimed that Mahyco’s access of multiple brinjal varieties violated the Biological Diversity Act (2002). The NBA has not yet issued a legal notice, but has stated that it “may proceed legally against Mahyco/Monsanto and all others concerned to take the issue to its logical conclusion.”
Monsanto, which owns a 26 percent stake in Mahyco, has denied collaboration in the project. “Reports suggesting that Bt brinjal is produced by Monsanto in partnership with Mahyco are untrue,” the company said in a recent statement. “Monsanto would like to clarify that Bt brinjal has been indigenously developed by Indian seed and biotech company, Mahyco, with the Cry1Ac gene accessed from Monsanto, in collaboration with multiple public sector institutions.”
The Singapore National Research Foundation will invest up to US$8.2 million over the next five years in a rice research program to target food security in the region. Researchers from the National University of Singapore and Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory, in cooperation with the International Rice Research Institute, will use the funding to develop drought-tolerant rice varieties in the face of climate change.
According to project leader Prakash Kumar, from the NUS’ Department of Biological Sciences, recent statistics about declining yields for formerly-reliable Asian rice varieties have created an urgent need for research and development of new disease-resistant varieties. “With this funding, our efforts will be significantly increased. We plan to employ an integrated approach to use molecular genetics, functional genomics as well as biotechnological tools to devise strategies to make the existing high-yielding varieties of rice suitable for the global climatic changes.”
While the program’s goals aim to address food security in Singapore and surrounding regions, its ultimate impact will be far-ranging. “Rice is the most important staple food in Singapore and for over half of the world population. Rice cultivation occupies the single largest land use in Asia (600,000 km2 annually) and employs a large percentage of the population. So, investment in rice research is critical.”
An update on Pakistan’s seed industry: The agriculture sector continues to play a central role in Pakistan’s economy. It is the second largest sector, accounting for over 21 percent of Pakistan’s gross domestic product, and remains by far the largest employer, absorbing 45 percent of the country’s total labor force. Nearly 62 percent of the country’s population resides in rural areas, and is directly or indirectly linked with agriculture for their livelihood.
Pakistan’s seed industry is composed of four public seed entities and more than 700 private seed companies, including five multinationals. The industry has made impressive strides from a modest beginning in seed production, from about 66,000 metric tons of various crops in 1976, to over 382,000 metric tons by 2010. The total seed market, comprised of crops such as wheat, cotton, rice, corn, chickpea, rape and mustard, sunflower, groundnut, pulses, fodders, vegetables and potatoes, is estimated at around 1.65 million tons (2010), with an estimated market value of approximately US$1.6 billion. In terms of quantity, the seed component comprised of open pollinated varieties is the largest, followed by hybrids (mostly imported). Small quantities of hybrid seeds (corn, canola and fodders) are being produced locally. Recently, locally-produced BT cotton has replaced more than 80 percent of the area seeded to traditional varieties.
Agricultural research is conducted by public research institutes at the federal and provincial levels. The national private sector’s research is still in early stages of development, and multinationals have established R&D centers, but their research is confined to testing exotic hybrids for commercialization in the country. The government considers biotechnology to be a high-priority industry for crops such as cotton, wheat, sugarcane, vegetables, oilseeds, fodders and potato. Biotech varieties, before their approval for commercial crop production, must qualify pre-registration testing for value for cultivation and use. Pakistan is a member of the World Trade Organization. To protect intellectual property rights, the Plant Breeders’ Rights Bill is in its final stages of approval. —Syed Irfan Ahmad, editor, The Seed News