Developed by BARC and notified in 1992, TAG 24 has been held in high stead by many administrators – but official records of its prowess paint another picture.
Mumbai: In 2013, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) had President Pranab Mukherjee dedicate a groundnut variety developed by its scientists to the nation. This was a first of its kind for the agricultural sector, following in the footsteps of nuclear power plants and aircraft carriers. However, it may also have been a poor choice for having beaten superior varieties to the top for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.
Groundnuts originated in southern Bolivia and northwest Argentina and were introduced in the erstwhile Madras Province in the mid-19th century. Today, India is the second-largest producer of groundnuts in the world – with an annual production of 7.7 million tonnes after China’s 13.42 million tonnes. India also exports hand-picked groundnut seeds used for confectionary items to the tune of Rs 4,046 crore, to Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines and Thailand. Apart from this, groundnuts are also used to make oil.
The BARC-developed mutant groundnut variety that the president dedicated to the country was TAG 24, a small-seeded variety used to make some Indian sweets like chikki or to be eaten roasted. TAG stands for Trombay-Akola Groundnut. It is a variety obtained through mutation-breeding. It was developed by BARC and notified by the Centre in 1992 as an oilseed crop. Initially released for the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, TAG 24 was later adopted by Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Rajasthan and West Bengal.
The 1992 notification was limited to 15 years. But in 2006, a year before its expiry, the phrase “period of 15 years” was removed through another notification, allowing all varieties in the original notification to indefinitely continue as notified varieties. So by 2013, when TAG 24 was dedicated to the nation, it had already been 21 years since the notification and at least 25 years since its development – a suspiciously long time to remain the best.
The variety had been through 146 all-India coordinated field trials between 1987 and 97 and an additional 17 trials between 2003 and 2006. Altogether, they showed that TAG24 had an average yield potential of 2,582 kg/ha, with a minimum of 1,658 kg/ha and a maximum of 2,714 kg/ha. However, the average increase in yield compared to the controls during the decades-long field trials was a feeble 3.4%.
On the other hand, consider Prutha (Dh86), released in 2005 with a yield potential of 4,022 kg/ha and oil content of 48%. Or Mallika (ICHG 00440), released in 2009 with a yield potential of 2,579 kg/ha and oil content of 48%. Both had been recommended for an all-India release, according to a status paper on oilseeds of 78 groundnut varieties released in 2001-2013, and published by the Department of Agriculture and Cooperation in 2014. In the same period, in 2004, a report published by the University of Georgia and USAID had made a case against TAG 24, putting it at an abysmal yield of 2,000 kg/ha.
In the same vein, a 2005 thesis submitted at the Department of Genetic and Plant Breeding, College of Agriculture, Dharwad, mentioned ICG 1862 with a yield-per-plant of 33.5 g and a test-weight (i.e., the weight of 100 seeds) of 63.99 g. The ICG 8760’s corresponding numbers were 20.31 g and 64.26 g. And TAG24’s – 11.99 g and 44.67 g, respectively. Moreover, compared to IGC 1862 and 8760, TAG24 also had a documented susceptibility to late-leaf disease, a major cause of reduced pod-yield in groundnut plants.
Between 1997 and 2013, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, the directorate of groundnut research and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research all declared that there were several groundnut varieties (references here and here) with proven yields exceeding 3,000 kg/ha. They also said TAG 24 was particularly susceptible to late-leaf and rust diseases, which are responsible for major crop-loss among groundnut plants. A similar assertion was made by BARC’s groundnut breeders and bench-level workers as late as 2005.
The promotion of TAG24 had been initiated by a trio of science administrators who have since retired: K.B. Sainis, S.F. D’Souza and S.K. Apte. Sainis was the director of the biomedical group between 2002 and 2013. He had received the Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar Award for Medical Sciences in 1994 despite allegations made by senior scientists of the Department of Atomic Energy that his work on immunology was neither carried out in India nor was he the principal investigator. D’Souza was the head of the Nuclear Agriculture and Biotechnology Division. Apte directed the biosciences group.
In 2011, several MPs trumpeted the 5,000 kg/ha yield number in the Rajya Sabha, followed by the Lok Sabha in 2012. In the same year, the Oil Seeds Division, under the agriculture department, reported that Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Rajasthan Tamil Nadu and West Bengal had produced 66,302 quintals of TAG 24 since 2009 – against the 11,55,854 quintals of TMV, another groundnut variety. The national dedication followed a year later.
If TAG 24 was a ‘super’ variety, it should have been a hit among seed-growers – but that’s not the case. According to the National Seeds Corporation, the maximum demand for TMV seeds was at 49.6% of the total demand; that for TAG 24 was 17.5%. The Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority was more categorical. It named the main groundnut varieties produced in India to be Kadiri-2, Kadiri-3, BG-1, BG-2, Kuber, Gaug-1, Gaug 10, etc. No TAG 24.
About 75% of India’s groundnut production comes from the southern zone, where it is a rainfed crop. Its genetic diversity is narrow with similar parentage, stymied by inbreeding. Therefore, varieties must be bred with distant and exotic germplasm, preferably from the main centre of diversity, to produce varieties with a higher level of resistance and productivity.
“In the last five years, over 3,600 quintals of breeder seeds of TAG 24 have been indented by different states for further multiplication in the seed chain,” T. Radhakrishnan, who helms the Directorate of Groundnut Research, at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), told The Wire. “Hence, this is one of the mega varieties in groundnut and extension is sought for general cultivation even beyond the norms of 15 years.” At the same time, the directorate stated in its 2015 report stated that the pod yield of the KDG-160 and K-1719 varieties had been 54% and 40.6% higher than TAG 24’s, in that order.
Both Sekhar Basu, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and the secretary of the Department of Atomic Energy, and K N. Vyas, the director of BARC, have not responded to questions. Now, more than three years have passed since the dedication, but it remains unclear why groundnut breeders, agriculture universities, oilseed research facilities and seed companies continue to persist with TAG 24.
Hiren Kumar Bose is a senior Mumbai-based journalist with varied interests, from farming to science and technology.