Nurturer of the Nature

by | Mar 15, 2023

Asafoetida, called Heeng in Hindi, is the dried gum secreted by tap root of several species of a carrot family plant called Ferula. These plants grow naturally in Karakum Desert spread over Eastern Iran, Turkmenistan, and mountains of Afghanistan. After five years of sowing a seed, a plant is ready to yield. The stems are cut down close to the root, a milky juice flows out and quickly sets into a solid resinous reddish-brown mass. After a season of giving resin, the plant dries out permanently.  

When modern science arrived with analytic tools, asafoetida was found to contain volatile sulphur-containing compounds, which participates in various biological activities upon consumption. Upon deeper examination, three major sulphur constituents that have been identified include 2-butyl 1-propenyl disulphide, 1-(methyl thio) propyl 1-propenyl disulphide and 2-butyl 3-(methyl thio)-2-propenyl disulphide. If we look inside popular drugs used for antimicrobial activity, against hepatotoxicity, and anticarcinogenic activity, these three compounds are almost always present. 

Supply chain disruptions during long Afghan war, that started in 1979, and militancy in Kashmir made Heeng very expensive. The import bill of about 1500-2000 tons of Heeng that India has been importing have crossed ₹1000 crore per year. The over-exploitation of wild population and lack of organized cultivation made Iran declared it an endangered species. As goes a cliché – necessity is the mother of invention, plant, and microbial biotechnologist Dr. Sanjay Kumar, arrived on the scene and developed a practical method of rapid regeneration of this species. 

Dr. Sanjay Kumar approached ICAR-National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (ICAR-NBPGR) and secured seeds from Afghanistan and Iran following a lengthy process. Using ecological niche modelling (ENM) a site was selected near the Center for High Altitude Biology (CeHAB) at Ribling, in Lahaul & Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh. One in a hundred asafoetida seeds germinates under normal conditions but by meticulous planning and care, the CSIR-IHBT team achieved 2 plants for every 3 seeds. The Headspace-gas chromatography (HS-GC) analysis on one-year old plant has confirmed presence of all major sulphur compounds.

.The tissue culture laboratory at CSIR-IHBT has developed an efficient method for regeneration of Asafoetida through somatic embryogenesis. Scientists have grown cellular mass out of cultures from root, leaf, and stem of mother plant. The high frequency of regeneration of the derived callus will encourage them to carry out protoplast culture, somatic hybridization, and genetic transformation. The group joined hands with Himachal Pradesh State Department of Agriculture that organized cultivation in five districts. Plantations were also made in Uttarakhand, Ladakh and Jammu & Kashmir.

Besides a long-standing friendship, I share with Dr. Sanjay Kumar nativity and alma mater. We both were born in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh and studied at the GB Pant University, of course in different times and fields. With doctorate at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, Sanjayji has been trained at the Texas Tech University and the Kansas State University in the U.S. and Rothamsted Research in the UK.

For Dr. Sanjay Kumar, science is the discovery of the secrets of nature. Through his work on high altitude plants, he discovered a novel carbon fixation pathway. Transplanting this pathway in a heterologous system reduced photorespiratory losses leading to photosynthetic gain and yield enhancement. According to him, winter dormancy and drought stress in tea, carry all the secrets for secondary metabolite synthesis and imparting stress tolerance to other plants.

Another work of far-reaching consequences led by Dr. Sanjay Kumar is growing of apples in North-East India. Apple trees thrive in temperate climates and needs cold winters to ensure plant dormancy and subsequent fruit production. Apples play a leading role in the economy of Himachal Pradesh. The uncertainties of the monsoon, dependence over the old cultivars, and pathogen infestation have created unwarranted uncertainties and hardships for the apple growers. 

Most apples need at least 1,000 cold hours. Low-chill apple types can thrive with as little as 400 winter chill hours, whereas moderately chill apple varieties need between 400 and 700 chill hours. Dr. Sanjay Kumar organized efforts to get apple trees that can withstand heat and have been bred over time in kinds that are suitable for colder winter climates. Many dwarf rootstocks with disease and insect resistance as well as cold hardiness can be developed by technological intervention. 

Apple trees in an orchard are generally not grown from apple seeds. There are two parts of an apple tree – the rootstock, which controls the size of the tree and the scion or cultivar which determines the variety or kind of fruit that grows on the tree. The scion is the plant which has the properties desired by the propagator, and the rootstock is the working part which interacts with the soil to nourish the new plant. The two parts are joined together by grafting. 

The CSIR-IHBT, Palampur, where Dr. Sanjay Kumar assumed leadership in 2015, have developed micropropagation technology for the rapid multiplication of commercially important rootstocks which can be utilized for re-plantation in apple orchards. By “designed grafting” low-chilling apple cultivars, apples can now be grown in warmer climates at even 700-meter altitude. The CSIR-IHBT, Palampur, had supplied 87,000 plants for cultivation in Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Arunachal Pradesh.

When my friend Dr. Ben Karenzi was in India, he informed me that apple crates must travel all the way from South Africa to Rwanda, making them very expensive. The climatic similarity between Manipur and Rwanda made us think of growing apples in Rwanda to great economic gains there. John McChlery, horticulturist from South Africa endorsed the proposition. Of course, things happen at their appointed times, and we can play out little parts and wait for larger forces arriving at the scene. For the bioeconomy to be successfully integrated into society, there must be a relationship between science, politics, and society. 

Bioeconomy is a buzz word these days. Though it is generally used in context of ethanol substituting a part of petrol, but the bioeconomy’s largest niche is occupied by food systems. There are tremendous possibilities and the two stories I discussed are merely tip of an iceberg.  As self-made scholars of the emerging field of bioeconomy, Dr. Sanjay Kumar and I see approximately $100 billon Indian bioeconomy as of 2023, poised to become $150 billion by 2025 and $300 billion by 2030. Like all things pass, poverty also must go for our small farmers living in remote places by taking and science and technology to them

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18 Comments

  1. Interesting insight into bioeconomy with the inspiring stories of indigenous apple and asafoetida cultivation, Prof Tiwariji !

    Your subtle message to play out our little parts and wait for larger forces arriving at the scene go long way in the pursuit of our cherished objectives!!

  2. Thanks for this blog. Our scientists like Dr. Sanjay are the true karam-yogis. Keep up your good work Sir.

  3. Dear Sir, Very nice blog on agriculture field. Yes, there is no doubt that these type of initiatives & efforts by leading agricultural scientists can help our farmers to earn better and overcome the curse of poverty.. Warm Regards.

  4. I look to Professor Arun Tiwari’s blog with utmost curiosity and get my fortnightly doze of clear inspirations. The author has enormous capacity to research positivity and distil what matters most to us.

    Articulation of the two bioeconomic wins demonstrate as to what taking science and technology to small farmers or other marginalised communities could do. Why has it not proliferated? I wonder what stops us. Be it space or atomic energy, India has a track record of most cost-effective research. What if bioeconomic happen as well.

    The case studies and articulation should convince politics and society to focus on science and technology as a means to freedom from ignorance and poverty. JAM trinity has penetrated and bypassed the archaic system of colonial governance. Now is its time to eliminate ignorance and poverty?

  5. Thanks to you sir, I had the privilege to meet Dr. Sanjay Kumar at CSIR-IHBT (Palampur). With a science background I only had theoretical knowledge of tissue culture and honestly, very little of it. My very first exposure to a tissue culture lab was his and I spent a week there, gaining insights. Forever grateful for this opportunity that you gave me sir.

  6. Your, this blog, Arun ji is very informative. New pieces edifying info on paths traveled less makes an interesting read. Efforts put in rapid regeneration of Asafoetida – Heeng by Dr. Sanjay Kumar, an alumnus of our alma mater GB Pant University are praise worthy.

    Visiting Pantnagar after 45 long years, celebrating the Golden Jubilee – 50 years of our Engineering batch of 1973 on March the 13th was very nostalgic. Meeting friend couples, some needing I.D Numbers for recollection and some requiring deep and concentrated look at the now changed features and outlook was, besides fun, an absolute kick of adrenaline. Having the ‘Sunday lunch’ specially made for us on a Tuesday, courtesy warden Chittaranjan Bhawan (Hostel # 456) with wives forming a queue to collect lunch in trays was certainly a fun experience.

    Dr Sanjay Kumar from same Alma mater I’m sure would recollect the golden times spent in the university which also sowed the seed and made him a person he is today – creating wonders in the field of Agricultural development. His work on cultivation of Heeng and creating species of Apples which could be produced at low altitudes and relatively not in the specific harsh winter hours required is simply great work. That apples can now be grown in relatively warmer climates at even 700-meter is a revelation.

    The hard methodical research and work carried out in taking technology to the poor farmers for uplifting their and country’s economy in general – Bioeconomy as you mentioned, is indeed commendable and both Dr Sanjay Kumar and our alma mater deserve a standing ovation.

  7. Indeed Prof Tiwari, when all is said and done, ‘… all things pass, poverty also must go for our small farmers living in remote places by taking and science and technology to them’

  8. Outstanding work by Dr Sanjay, which will touch the life of a common man.
    Hing is a very common spices used in Indian houses.
    Inspiring example how R& D can be a game changer.

    Congratulations to Dr Sanjay ji.

  9. Dr. Sanjay has truly inspired nation to cultivate economically important crops in INDIA with scientific interventions.

    Heeng, Saffron, Dalchini, Mulethi and Monkfruit introduction in country is a great effort towards making “self reliant India”.

    Thanks Prof. Tiwari for such a encouraging blog.

  10. Hing : PER-UN-GAYAM (in Tamil) ..ING-UAA (in Telugu).. HING-U ( Kannada) is freely used in most vegetarian (predominantly Brahmin) communities in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Telugu speaking states of South India. Used in minute quantities, it enhances the flavour of dishes like Sambar. It aids in digestion and prevents bloating ( the Toor Dhal generates gas as the dhal is used in a non sprouted form ). India is a land of spices and till now this was the only spice that was imported. My compliments to Dr Sanjay Kumar for his pioneering efforts to get this spice ‘indigenised’
    Dr Sanjay Kumar and his team have carried out yeoman service n ‘creating’ a species of apple that can be grown in any climate and enable all the people in this planet eat this nutritious fruit. Again, my best wishes and compliments.

  11. What a pleasure to read about our dear friend Dr Sanjay Kumar! He has been a champion of small holder farmers and worked tirelessly to increase their incomes. His work on dried fruits, especially gooseberry (amla) has been revolutionary. We can see this product sold online. A storehouse of good health and one of the most significant nutrients in Ayurvedic treatment, amla has been used as a raw material for other products like Chyawanprash. But now, we can take it as a candy. It possesses about double the antioxidant power of acai berry and roughly 17 times the antioxidant power of pomegranate. I Hope you write about that and other similar superfruits sometime. Let us celebrate Dr Sanjay Kumar!

  12. Dear Prof Tiwari

    This is powerful and inspiring!

    I look forward to exchange and sharing of knowledge and expertise among our scientific communities. South-South cooperation will lead to mutually satisfying results.

  13. Just wonderful!!

  14. Very inspiring and informative story. We often use Asafoetida in our cooking but we did not know it’s origin. Thank you for enlightening us.

  15. This is such an inspiring story!

    People are carried away by the glamour and glitter of the corporate world. We see discussions everywhere about share prizes, profitability, and read stories about lifestyles of the rich and famous. Nice to read about the high-quality scientific work which will change the lives of thousands of people living in remote areas.

    Wish I could get into this world of technology benefiting the poor!

    Thank you, Sir. God bless Dr Sanjay Kumar.

  16. It is an absolute pleasure to read your blog on Dr Sanjay and how he transformed CSIR-IHBT. He has contributed immensely towards conservation of biodiversity and developed so many technologies from IHBT.

  17. I have relocated to Tanzania now. I am sitting in my flat in Iringa with the rain pouring down outside. They promise a good season I hope, as farmers in this area have had to contend with drought for too long.

    I am focussing on Tanzania currently but only yesterday was talking to a client in the area about your low chill apple dream in Rwanda. Please rest assured I have not forgotten and will make this a central part of my visit to Rwanda in the coming months.

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