Economic Times: Kulvinder Gill, professor of breeding and genetics at the Washington State University in the US, describes himself as a dreamer and an optimist. One of his dreams is to make sure food production does not decline over the next few decades, when increasing temperatures act on the yields of major crops.
Specifically, he is beginning a project with six other organisations in India to make wheat less sensitive to heat while flowering. “We hope we can solve the problem in four years,” says Gill.
Wheat and rice, two major crops in India, are sensitive to rapid changes in temperature. An increase of 2 degree centigrade over normal during flowering will reduce the yield of wheat by 15-20%. An increase in 1 degree centigrade at night can reduce the yield of rice by 10%. India’s average temperature is supposed to rise by at least 1 degree centigrade by 2050.
“We do not know how the increase in temperature will be distributed,” says Krishna Kumar, senior scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) in Pune. “In certain regions temperature can increase by more than one degree.”
Till the 1990s, night temperatures in India had not risen much. However, in the last 15 years it has increased by at least half a degree, and is expected to increase at least as much in the next 15 years. Concomitant with temperature rise would come irregular monsoons, droughts, flooding, and prolonged heat and cold spells. All this threatens agriculture productivity, but genomics is promising to rescue us from disaster. Agricultural scientists understand crops better now mainly due to the enormous investments in genomics globally.
Gill’s project aims to tap the natural resistance of certain crops to higher temperatures and transfer this property to wheat. Gill is not aiming at a few simple tweaks of wheat genes. He has to understand the complete machinery behind the tolerance to heat of some crops, and then transfer this property to wheat. To finish the project in four years, his lab and the six organizations have to work together like a clock, in perfect sync with each other.
Yet Gill is not making some blind estimates. He has deep experience in the genetics of crops and has transferred many complex traits before. “It is a difficult but not unrealistic goal to finish the project in four years,” says KK Narayanan, MD of Tata group firm Metahelix Life Sciences in Bangalore.
The Bangalore-based Metahelix is one of the partners in the project, which is yet to start. The other private sector partner is Krishidhan Seeds in Aurangabad, and the project has four other universities and government organisations as well. Metahelix has its own project to develop heat-resistant bajra. Around the country, several organizations are preparing for climate change, working to use genomic technologies to develop traits like heat-resistance, drought tolerance, submergence (flood) tolerance and so on.
They include the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (Icrisat), Punjab Agricultural University and several agricultural research institutes in the country. “Use of genomics has the potential to increase the yield by up to 20%,” says Vinod Prabhu, head of the department of genetics at IARI.
Prabhu’s lab at the Pusa campus of IARI in Delhi has been working on the genetics of several crops. It has recently commercialised submergence-tolerant rice, which is able to withstand flooding. It is ready with temperature-resistant mustard. It turns out that the pungency of mustard oil – which makes it less acceptable to many people – can be removed with genetic engineering. Removal of erucic acid, which gives mustard the pungency, makes the oil healthier.
With the added property of heat-resistance, mustard can be grown in South India as well in places where rice could not be planted due to poor monsoon. The IARI genetics department has long-term projects on heat-resistant wheat and drought-resistant rice, among other things.
Genomics technologies have improved over the last few years, making it possible for agriculture scientists to reduce fieldwork. Many Indian agriculture labs are now also well-networked and carry out parts of the project simultaneously speeding up research. In many cases, genomics allows researchers to study problems before they manifest as symptoms in the plant. Plus, conventional methods like breeding aid development of crops with special properties, helping farmers to use difficult conditions.
Metahelix, for one, has developed a temperature-resistant bajra for use in the hot areas of Rajasthan. With increasing irrigation, farmers there are trying to cultivate this crop in the summer, when temperatures reach 47 degree centigrade. Bajra grows well in the heat by its pistils (which receives the pollen) dry up in the heat making the plant infertile. Farmers are now in the middle of trials with heat-resistant bajra. Traditional breeding still has some steam left, but genomics can alter the course of agriculture over the next decade or two.
Started in year 2010, ‘Climate Himalaya’ initiative has been working on the mountain and climate related issues in the Himalayan region of South Asia. In the last two years this knowledge sharing portal has become one of the important references for the governments, research institutions, civil society groups and international agencies, those have work and interest in Himalayas. The Climate Himalaya team innovates on knowledge sharing, capacity building and climatic adaptation aspects in its focus countries like Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan. Climate Himalaya’s thematic areas of work are mountain ecosystem, water, forest and livelihood. Read>>