Chief technical officer and joint director of research, Mahyco
An expert geneticist, Dr Zehr has been the brain behind the development
of Bt brinjal at Mahyco. She serves on a number of boards, including
the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation and the Mahyco Research
Foundation, and is a member of the technical advisory committee of the
consultative group on International Agricultural Research.
The Indian economy is booming and so is the biotech sector. The country
witnessed reasonable growth in biotechnology over the past few years
and has the potential to grow significantly in the coming years. The
agriculture biotechnology sector has seen growth as a result of the
cotton technologies, basic research and diagnostic tools developed, but
pharma biotechnology has seen a much stronger growth. Potential for
agriculture biotechnology is equally good. Many new products are at
their final stages of development and regulatory approvals.
India is ranked among the top 12 biotechnology destinations worldwide
and is the third largest in the Asia-Pacific region. The biotechnology
sector grew by 21.5 percent in 2010-11 to cross the $4 billion mark, as
revealed by an annual survey conducted by BioSpectrum and The
Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises (ABLE). It is interesting
to note that most of the companies operating in the biotech sector
today are largely dominated by private players. The agri-biotech sector
has also been dominated by products from the private sector. Given
India’s scientific talent pool, resources and basic infrastructure, the
opportunity for improving our global potential is big.
Among the various challenges faced by the biotech sector, those related
to marketing challenges are critical, which have to be identified and
addressed at different levels, to enable smooth flow of products and
services to the target audience at the right time and right place. The
biggest challenge of developing an agri-biotech product, to be planted
in the fields, is the time taken to develop it. India has a stringent
regulation in place for biotech products. The current system for
product development can take more than 10 years. The introduction of
Bollgard and Bollgard II was an excellent learning in terms of what was
needed for a biotech product introduction as compared to what we had
been doing since the beginning of the seed industry.
The key challenges for the industry are:
- Creating awareness about biotech products, which will include
- Tackling misinformation spread due to lack of knowledge or by
- Awareness building with various stakeholder groups.
- Understanding the need for use of biotechnology.
- Ensuring that the policy environment facilitating product
development processes is efficient.
- Managing farmer expectations with regard to agri-biotech products.
Given the long time it takes to develop a genetically modified (GM)
product, it is critical that the regulatory approval process
established is rigorous and timely. The Biotechnology Regulatory
Authority of India Bill (BRAI), currently under discussion, aims to
provide a single-window facility for clearance of biotech products. The
agri-biotech industry welcomes regulations that will enable timely
examination and approval of products for the benefit of the
Since biotech products, particularly GM products, are relatively less
understood, the key challenge is creating better understanding and
credibility at the initial stage. India’s agriculture has been able to
keep up with the demands on food grains and it has been supplemented by
imports as needed, particularly in pulses and oils. However, as we look
to the future requirements and our diminishing resources of land, water
and potential impacts due to climate change, we need to be looking at
tools for addressing the demand. Creating this awareness is critical to
the future of biotech products.
Communication is the urgent need
Biotech product development is a complex process. This requires
extensive explanation of product features, action and benefits before
customers fully understand the need for them.
When connected with a sensitive industry like biotechnology, it becomes
extremely important to build credibility and convey facts. Typically,
scientists have not been engaged in communication activities but this
is very much needed to engage various stakeholders.
Mahyco has been marketing seeds since 1964 and enjoys farmers’ trust,
for which we are grateful for. The biotech products challenge us
to improve our communication and also the stakeholders that we need to
engage with. Traditionally, our communication was primarily restricted
to the farming community directly. With biotech products, the
stakeholder groups are not just farmers, but include consumer groups,
students and policy makers, and the communication needs have to be fit
for the respective groups.
At Mahyco, we dedicate our efforts to educate the stakeholders via
direct outreach, thus, making an effort to communicate the company’s
message in a simplified manner. Our marketing messages focus on the
challenges faced by India’s agriculture, the farmer and what solutions
are possible and how biotechnology tools will play a key role in that.
Overcoming each of these phases has been a rich learning experience
that has helped us develop world-class expertise in biotechnology.
Biotech products require a distinctly different kind of marketing. It
is important to recognize the unique place that these cutting-edge
products have in the marketplace and appreciate the changes they can
bring about in the country. Successful launch of these products will
bring tremendous benefits to farmers, consumers and the nation as a