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India Institute Seeks Expertise in Global Seed Business

By BIMAN MUKHERJI

NEW DELHI – Blessed with one of the world’s most diverse seed gene banks, India’s premier state-run agriculture research institute is seeking to collaborate with multinational seed corporations to develop high-yielding, durable seeds — both for profit and to improve the nation’s poor crop yields, a senior official at the institute said.

The Indian Council of Agriculture Research would offer its partners its massive seed gene bank in exchange for expertise and a share of the profits, ICAR deputy director general Swapan K. Datta said.

ICAR has already sought the government’s approval for such tie-ups, which would enable it to tap into an international seed market worth $200 billion annually, Mr. Datta said late Thursday.

Datta said such collaboration is crucial to developing higher-yielding seeds for Indian farmers.

“We know that we are rich in germplasm [seed genes]. But we also need the next generation of genetics,” he said. “We have to do it.”

ICAR hopes to collaborate on the development of a variety of high-yielding, climate-tolerant seeds that could be used in India and elsewhere.

It is likely to attract plenty of potential suitors. ICAR could offer around 400,000 varieties of native germplasm, many of which could be used to develop crops that could withstand adverse conditions such as those created by global warming, Mr. Datta said.

Despite its abundant resources, India has captured only around 2% of the global seed market due to lack of expertise and marketing. Efforts to introduce genetically modified crops have largely met with resistance from social groups.

“We have crops that are being grown and adapted very naturally to different geographies. So we have drought-tolerant rice, terminal-heat tolerant wheat and salinity-tolerant crop varieties,” he said.

Mr. Datta said collaborating with multinationals could be hugely profitable, but the bigger benefit might be offering modern technology to Indian farmers to help them meet the challenge of feeding the nation’s ever-growing population.

“We really wouldn’t mind taking a small share of the profits. What would be more important is if we could use such collaborations to bring high-yielding seeds to our farmers at 50% of the cost,” Mr. Datta said.

Boosting the farm productivity is critical because India has little scope for expanding the area under cultivation. Though the nation currently enjoys surpluses in grain staples such as rice and wheat, it must import oilseeds and pulses.

On the other hand, the scope for increasing productivity is immense. For example, Canada’s productivity of pulses exceeds India’s by more than two-and-a-half times.

Write to Biman Mukherji at biman.mukherji@dowjones.com

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