Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Agricultural research-Public funding vs private investment

Looking back at the developments in agriculture brought about by the path breaking research at Indian Council of Agricultural Research 5-6 decades ago under the famed Green Revolution, one is tempted to ask the question whether India would have become self sufficient in cereals if this effort was left to the profit driven private sector. This is not to indict the private sector as evolving new varieties with built in economic advantages is both time consuming as well investment intensive. If to day world is debating about the desirability of GMO foods which were developed by the private sector mostly dominated by a few international companies with almost monopolistic hold over the seeds and other inputs necessary to cultivate these crops with some claimed advantages, it is because the fruits of these scientific efforts are not percolating down to small and marginal farmers. It is similar to the situation in development of new antibiotics which has hit a road block because of exorbitant cost of establishing their efficacy and safety, making it imperative for government to get involved closely in such efforts by pumping in public funds for the benefits of the public. Future developmental efforts in agricultural sector in evolving new technologies, especially involving molecular techniques, also will have to be a public interest driven one that can benefit millions of farmers without the burden of intellectual property related legal hassles. This is demonstrated by the experience in Canada where government is intimately involved in developments in agricultural front.

"Advancements in new crop varieties are important for the agriculture and agri-food industry, as yield increases, resistance traits, biochemical components and nutrient improvements have benefits for farmers, processors, and consumers.In the public sector, developing varieties with important novelty traits provide base foundations in seed quality Additional agronomic traits are later selected and added, and the varieties are sold commercially. Public and private breeding programs focus on different trait types due to the public pressure to release varieties.  Essential private breeding programs are typically funded by government or industry groups. The release of an individual variety typically costs $100,000. But despite its importance and demand, plant breeding is generating little interest with the younger generation. Plant breeding is not in the public eye very often, so many are unaware of the job options in the field. Peter Pauls, Chair of the Plant Agriculture Department at the University of Guelph sees this problem on a regular basis. "Everyone eats, but plant-related careers are under appreciated," he says. With a dynamic sector that has been changing drastically over the past 15 years as the use of molecular techniques are implemented, Pauls says young people are needed for their creative minds and technical skillsets, to utilize these molecular techniques to their full potential. For example, conventional breeding programs produce a commercially viable variety in 10 years. But using efficient molecular techniques can shorten this time because specific genetic markers can be implemented or selected to obtain desirable traits". 

After all farmers ploughing the field for a living have to be sure that the seeds being used are viable and come up to their expectations in terms of productivity and profitability. The requirements of small farmers are some what different from those of large farms which have access to best inputs and infrastructure to get assured yields and ensure good returns for their efforts. India is fortunate in having several agricultural universities across the country engaged in developing new and improved varieties of different crops with better performance credentials under Indian conditions. They also have the wherewithal to deliver the service to the farmers through their extension service network in the geographic areas covered by them. Indian farmers are that way fortunate in having easy access to the scientific innovations in these universities. Of course there is always scope for improving the interaction between agriculture scientists and the farming community. As there is no fund scarcity in the country for public sector agricultural research, the strangle hold of private players is rather limited.    


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