Thursday, November 24, 2011

Multinational companies want to tinker with onions

Syed Akbar
Hyderabad: Look who wants to tinker with the onion in the country! The
Indian onion, long considered for its unique taste, texture, bulb size
and pungency, may lose its naturality if a multinational seed company
has its way. After tinkering with the genes of the onion in the West
to change its trademark tear-causing property and pungency, the firm
has now sought permission of Indian authorities to "produce commercial
grade onion seeds" out of the hybrids developed by the Indian
Institute of Horticultural Research.

The company has sought the germplasm of two hybrid varieties of Indian
onions, which have been doing well in the fields and reaping higher
returns to farmers. It has approached the National Biodiversity Board
seeking 25 grams each of male sterile (A line) and maintainer (B line)
of MS 48 and MS 65 hybrid onion varieties.

As environment activist Bhargavi Rao points out, "the company wants to
develop new hybrids using the Indian onion germplasm," but expresses
doubts that the germplasm could be misused for transgenics given the
loopholes in legal system and the "chalta hai" attitude of officials
in the country.

Bhargavi Rao and her team last week exposed the multinational seed
company through their arguments before the National Biodiversity Board
on the use of germplasm of nine varieties of Indian brinjal without
official permission to develop a transgenic variety of the vegetable.
Brinjal, like onion, is preferred by many Indian families across the
length and breadth of the country.

Selection of onion after brinjal for "research" in the country raises
many a doubt, the simplest being, "why the Indian onion?" The answer
is as simple as the question. Onion in India is not just a vegetable.
It's more than a mere kitchen ingredient, linked to the customs and
traditions of the country. Quite often onion has turned into an
emotional, electoral and political issue too, forcing governments
scurry for cover from the public wrath.

Besides being an integral component of Indian culinary preparations,
onion with several natural compounds is valued for its medicinal
properties. It contributes about 90 per cent of foreign exchange to
the country under vegetables. Also onion seed business is not highly
organised, with just 30 per cent of the seed coming from organised
sector. So this leaves a 70 per cent gap for business in onion seeds
in India.

"Yes, onion has always been an emotional issue in India. It is capable
of pulling down governments. No Indian kitchen is complete without
this bulbous vegetable. That the seed company has selected onions for
hybridisation shows it wants to take control of the politics of the
country through hybrid onions. Once the Indian onion germplasm goes
into the hands of the multinational firm, onions may not be available
for the common man as it will have a say over its price," alleges Leo
Saldanha of Environment Support Group.

Environment activists caution that if officials give permission to the
seed company to take up hybridisation of Indian onions, the general
public may not have access to the vegetable, whose prices touch the
sky during certain months. "Farmers will also be forced to buy the
hybrid seed year after year. Government agencies like Indian Institute
of Horticultural Research, Bengaluru, and the Project Directorate of
Onion and Garlic Research, Pune, have already developed onion hybrid
and research is on for new hybrid varieties. So there's no need for a
private firm to take up onion hybridisation in the country," argues
senior advocate Syed Naseer Ahmed.

According to Bhargavi Rao, the multinational seed company in its
application to the National Biodiversity Board has introduced itself
as using  marker-assisted breeding with focus on tomato, chilli,
brinjal, water melon, cucumber, tropical cauliflower and short day
onions. "This speaks of a larger agenda," chips in Saldanha.

As the Project Directorate of Onion and Garlic Research (PDOGR)
rightly points out, "seed is the basic unit of crop production and has
greater contribution than environment and cultural factors". India
needs 4500 tons of onion seed annually for covering 5 lakh hectares
area. About 70 per cent production comes from local genotypes/land
races maintained by the farmers. Only 30 per cent is produced under
organised sectors. But the quality of seeds the farmers generate is
not always good and this impacts the bulb quality.

The onion market is quite larger than one imagines. PDOGR statistics
show that India ranks second in area (5.28 lakh hectares) and
production (74.51  lakh tons) of onion, next to China. Besides meeting
domestic requirements, India exports 11.0 lakh tons of onion worth Rs
1000 crore. Over last 25 years the production of onion has increased
from 25.04 lakh tonnes to 74.51 lakh tonnes. The official target is to
produce 100 lakh tonnes of onion by 2025 and develop onion varieties
suitable for export in dark red and light red for Gulf and South East
Asian markets as well as yellow and brown for European markets.

Saldanha supports the argument that there's no need for research on
hybrid onions by private players. Research on onion has been taking
place in India for the last 40 years. Several State agricultural
universities and institutions attached to the Indian Council of
Agricultural Research are busy with the project. As many as 40
varieties including hybrids of onion have been developed by public
sector research bodies.

"India has a rich variety of onion germplasm, which need to be
protected from external poachers," observes Naseer Ahmed. The
germplasm from native onion varieties grown in Maharashtra, Karnataka,
Andhra Pradesh and other States should be preserved for posterity.

Official figures put the number of native germlines in onion in the
country at 200. Steps should be taken to ensure that none of them
falls into the wrong hands, particularly the multinational companies
notorious for playing with the genes of vegetables, fruits and food
grains, he adds.

Fact box

* Indian onion has its unique place among vegetables, contributing to
nearly 90 per cent of foreign exchange under vegetables.

* There are arguments that onion was first used in India (now
Pakistan) about 7000 years ago, much before modern man took to
cultivation. Ancient Indian medical texts dating back to 2500 years
refer to the health benefits of onion.

* India, though second largest producer of onions in the world after
China, has Asia's biggest onion market.

* Indian onion has a rich repository of germplasm. As many as 200
germlines of onion have been recognised and preserved at the National
Bureau of Plant Genetics Resources.

* Environment activists demand that germplasm of Indian onion
varieties should not be given to foreign companies, particularly those
accused of or involved in biopiracy. There are enough Indian research
institutions under ICAR and State universities doing research on onion

* Permission to produce commercial grade onion seeds will only help
the seed company, at the cost of farmers and the general public,
environment groups warn.

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