Biologicals in India: Moving from the Green Revolution to the Eco Agri Revolution

Biological products continue to gain acceptance around the world. India is no exception. Agribusiness Global™ magazine spoke with Dr. M.H. Mehta, a pioneer in the biological input industry and the Chairman of India’s Working Group on Eco Agriculture. He shares his vision and expectations for biological products in India:

Q. How have biological products in general been received in India?
India is on the path of moving from Green Revolution to Eco Agri Revolution or Ever Green Revolution, and the role and potential of biological products (agri-bio inputs) as the key component is increasingly appreciated at all levels.

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Mehta

It is realized that the bio-inputs hold enormous growth opportunities because they are eco-friendly, cost effective, and farmer- and consumer-friendly.

Q. How would you describe your experience of setting up India’s first semi-commercial plants for biofertilizer and biopesticides in the 1990s and today’s scenario in India?
In the earlier years convincing people about the importance and potential of bio inputs was not easy. Even progressive and large industries were not interested, and concept selling was a major challenge. We were producing only one or two monoculture products in a small way. In the last two decades this picture has changed. In general, the biologicals are growing at a much higher compound annual growth rate (almost 14%) than the chemicals (about 2%), although their volumes are still much smaller. There are many small, medium, and large industries, and the number is going to be much higher in the coming decade. Also, a large number of new-generation products are now in the market, and the demand is growing.

Q. Are these products being used in conjunction with traditional crop inputs or to replace them?
The bio products are increasingly used in conjunction with traditional inputs in conventional farms. A 20% mix of conventional and bio inputs seems to be the popular trend initially. (The 20:20 model earlier proposed by us is based on the “Middle Path” model to help improve the productivity by 20% or more while lowering the input cost 20% or more in a sustainable and evolutionary way.) As for the organic farming, the trend is toward certified bio-input packages to help improve productivity and disease control. Although India has the largest number of organic farmers in the world, the low productivity and poor market shares are major concerns. Central and state governments have announced special plans for the promotion of organic farming. The use of bio inputs, including bio composts from farm wastes, can considerably help realize a better potential. We have taken up application of multi-microbial consortia for in-situ conversion of crop residue in the Northern Green Revolution States. This can help solve the air and soil pollution problem on one hand and a very large application of bio inputs.

Q. Are these products being manufactured in India or imported?
Most of the products with multi-microbial formulations and botanical products are being produced by small, medium, and large industries and even some universities. There are more than 200 registrants for botanicals and microbials for biocontrol only. There are many small- and medium-scale technology-based enterprises that are producing a range of high-quality products. Their major challenges are in marketing and scale-up limitations. There have been some imports of biostimulants, especially seaweed extracts. Not all have been good, although some of them have done very well. In general, global players have shown keenness to enter the growing Indian market through collaborative arrangements. In the bio-input industries there is room for all. The important thing is to support many R&D-based small- and medium-scale industries and at the same time have proper control to ensure quality, while keeping spurious and poor-quality products out, and to see that the farmers keep getting the best products. On the other hand India has a highly qualified and talented pool, conducive climate, and a captive market of nearly 195 billion ha — so it’s an enormous opportunity in the coming decades.

Q. What is the regulatory environment for biologicals in general and biostimulants in particular?
Bio products are regulated by two acts: the Fertilizer (Control) Order (FCO) 1985 and the Insecticides Act, 1968. Both acts were written in the context of chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides, and there is a demand for having common guidelines for all bio products. Recently, a new biological industry coagulation, Biologicals Agri Solutions Association of India (BASAI), has been formed, which will also help the awareness building and focus on standards. It is expected that the regulatory environment will change in the near future with more speed. The industry will have to be sure to provide high-quality and reliable products.

Q. Overall, how do you see the future of biologicals?
Although the growth rate of biologicals will be high, the chemicals cannot be wished away overnight. For conventional practices, we already have a trend of the two going together, with biological growing at a much faster rate. With this background, the 20:20 model is an evolutionary and appropriate way of transformation. Also, the organic sector will demand exclusive biological input packages. Apart from India, the neighboring countries, like Bangladesh, Bhuttan, and Sri Lanka, also show a similar trend. The main driving forces for the demand for biologicals are environmental concern, consumer awareness, farmers’ desperate need for low-cost inputs, and the fast rate of development of newer and more effective bio products. It has been seen that even small, illiterate farmers adopt new and better products faster than expected. The Working Group (Eco Agriculture) is taking up a roadmap and action plan, keeping these factors in focus. Developing and popularizing bio inputs is a great business and also one of the noblest ways to help agriculture, the environment, and a sustainable future.