Growing healthy grapes, assuring abundance

20 November 2014 | Column | By Mrunmayee Vanarase

The National Horticulture Board estimates the land under grape cultivation in India to be over 0.12 million hectares, with production of over 1.24 million tonne of fresh grape and about 0.15 million tonne of raisin. Grape export contributes a large share to the economy of the country. The major credit of this vast industry which includes, but is not restricted to, table grapes, wine grapes, grape growers, wineries and allied industry, goes to researchers at the National Research Centre for Grapes (ICAR NRC Grapes). It is established by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research in January 1997 at Manjri Farms Pune, Maharashtra. The mandate of the institute is to undertake a mission-oriented programme involving basic and strategic research for resolving major biotic and abiotic constraints affecting production, productivity and utilisation of grapes.

The institute is currently headed by Dr S D Sawant as its director and has a team of 16 scientists in various streams of agriculture. The institute houses 10 departments, where research on various segments of grape growing and post-harvest studies is carried out. It also has a functional winery where work on enology is carried out. NRC Grapes emphasises its focus on food safety and is carrying out regular programmes to encourage good agricultural practices by farmers across the country. Scientists have regular interactions with farmers, exporters, agrochemical companies and sister research institutes to promote healthier farming practices.

The institute has excelled in plant pathology, plant physiology, microbiology, entomology, horticulture, enology and agrochemical management. NRC Grapes offers consultancy services to grape growers and wine makers on a wide range of topics including cultivation of table grapes of export varieties, raisin, juice and wine making, integrated nutrient management, integrated disease management, canopy management, water and irrigation management and post-harvest value addition in grapes.

In the 17 years of its establishment, NRC Grapes has acquired technical expertise and state of art equipment to undertake mission-oriented research to resolve problems faced by the grape growers of the country. A grape gene bank in field comprising 426 collections from India and few from abroad has been established. The germplasm has been characterised based on phenotypic and molecular characters and a catalogue of germplasm is prepared. The germplasm has also been evaluated for many desirable traits for direct commercial use or for improvement of existing cultivaters.

Breeding activities on a small scale have given a cross between Flame Seedless and Pusa Navrang which is named as ‘Medika’ with excellent juice colour and qualities. Medika, a hybrid developed at the Centre, was shown to have nutraceutical properties and potential as good variety for juice. This variety was specially showcased in fruiting and its juice was evaluated on organoleptic ratings for acceptance during the field day organised at the centre. The hybrid was accepted by consumers and will be promoted for its potential health benefits.
Another important on-going breeding programme is to introgress downy mildew resistance in Thompson Seedless and molecular markers are being developed for identifying downy mildew resistant progenies. Breeding to develop naturally loose bunches with bold berries is also initiated.

NRC Grapes has introduced table grape varieties such as Crimson Seedless, Fantasy, Autumn Royal, etc. Development of package of practices suitable for conditions of tropical viticulture and their demonstrations in major grape growing areas will help in adoption of these varieties for commercial cultivation.

One such notable endeavour of NRC Grapes is the National Referral Laboratory for monitoring agrochemical residues for export of fresh grapes from India. Exportable grapes are sent only when they are found to be residue free as per European norms. In 2003 when the Indian grape export faced rapid alerts and rejection from the European markets due to detection of unauthorised chemicals like monocrotophos and methomyl, Government of India approached NRC Grapes and the institute was identified as the National Referral Laboratory (NRL) in the financial year 2003–04 to develop a system for residue testing and monitoring across the country by a common procedure.

The Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), Ministry of Commerce, Government of India funds the project of NRL. NRC Grapes is a research organisation under ICAR. However, NRL was established to target a export-related problem, and thus it is a project with an objective to control pesticide residues in table grapes which is exported to Europe. The current duration of the project is till 2017 and APEDA has invested over `3 crore for the project so far.

This department under NRC Grapes is headed by ICAR National Fellow and Principle Scientist Dr Kaushik Banerjee. Activities carried out here are: 1) Risk assessment – when pesticides are applied, how long the pesticide is persisting in the grapes until it degrades to maximum residue limit (MRL) and estimation of pre-harvest Interval – the number of days the farmer has to wait until harvest starting from the day of final application so that the residue level at harvest falls below the MRL. 2) Evaluation of toxic metabolites. 3) Development and validation of efficient residue analysis methods and implementation of those methods across testing laboratories in the country. 4) Establishing sampling protocols for grapes – how samples should be collected in a statistically valid method so that sampling induced variation in test results can be minimised.

The laboratory is a referral centre where 5% of the already tested commercial samples are reanalysed to cross check accuracy and precision of the tested commercial samples across the country. Each commercial laboratory’s performance is also measured regularly by conducting proficiency tests and laboratory assessments. The laboratory thus does not carry any kind of commercial testing of pesticide residues in export samples.

A wide range of facilities have been developed at NRL for qualitative and quantitative estimation of pesticide residues. The instrumentations used include range of chromatography and mass spectrometry instruments called GCMS and LCMS of different technologies. These technologies range from basic levels to very high-end equipment capable of quantifying pesticide residue levels up to even 1 part per billion (ppb). When commercial testing laboratories face difficulty in residue testing the referral laboratory provides support to resolve the issue.

Efforts are also being made to improve nutritional quality of grapes using organic practices. Studies on wine are being targeted to bring Indian wines in the international market and improve nutritional profile of wines being produced in India.

NRL has developed multi-residue techniques by which 300+ pesticide compounds can be estimated by a single method at an extremely low level. Internationally, 10ppb is the default maximum residue limit. Residue testing procedures have been developed in such a way that it can take care of testing at half the values of international limits, meaning 5ppb and below.

The laboratory has also developed methods for detection and quantification of plant growth regulators (PGR). Method validation is done as per international criteria of DG SANCO European Commission. There are facilities for detection and quantitation of heavy metals with the use of ICP-MS which detect heavy metals of toxicological and health concerns like lead, cadmium etc.

NRC Grapes has regular collaborations with all ICAR institutes, universities, research institutes under other bodies like CSIR, ICMR etc. It also has a strong collaboration with the Centre for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, US FDA.

This programme on pesticide residue monitoring and analysis has now been extended to other fruits like pomegranate, mango and vegetables like okra, chili, tomato, bitter gourd, and almost all fruits and vegetables which have export importance. The institute is taking care of food safety assessment for domestic consumption and supporting FSSAI in implementing their activities.

Commenting on the food safety aspects of the domestic market, Dr Banerjee said, “FSSAI is doing a lot of work on that front. Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) are getting established on different commodities for pesticides, PGRs. These MRLs are with review at the FSSAI scientific panel in the final stage. Once these updated MRLs are fixed, domestic products can be assessed for risk related to contamination. We already have certain MRLs in the country and they are being revised and updated. Implementation is in process.”

According to Dr Banerjee, the institute is going to play a major role in capacity building exercise especially in the field of food safety. The government is spending a lot of money to improve the facility of labs in the country. But we may not have adequate trained human resources. The institute is going to significantly contribute to the chain of human resources in the country. This is being ensured by organising training programmes for commercial testing facilities that are established as well as new ones.

To keep pace with international regulations and domestic requirements, the National Referral Laboratory and NRC Grapes is carving a path towards a safer and pesticide free produce. Efforts are also being made to improve nutritional quality of grapes using organic practices. Studies on wine are being targeted to put Indian wines in the international market and improve nutritional profile of wines produced in India. Although the challenges faced in the domestic market are tremendous, it is striving towards safety of not just horticultural products but other processed foods as well. 

Some of the projects being carried out at NRC Grapes:

  • Management of Grape Genetic Resources of table, wine, raisin, juice and rootstock varieties
  • Development of new grape varieties through conventional breeding
  • Breeding for Development of Marker Assisted Selection Technique for diseaseresistance in grapes
  • Standardization of cultural practices to increase quality yield of wine grapes
  • Standardization of propagation techniques in grapes
  • Performance of wine varieties under Indian condition for yield and quality wine
  • Techniques to Improve Nutrient Use Efficiency Including Farm Waste
  • Standardization of growth regulator schedule for new grape varieties
  • Isolation, bio-efficacy evaluation, characterization and formulation of viticultural micro-organisms3
  • Studies on the biology and control of the fungi causing anthracnose disease in grapes
  • Studies on virus diseases of grapes
  • Studies on bio-efficacy of fungicides and safer environmental profiles for management of grape diseases
  • Development and testing of weather data based disease forecasting models of pest alert systems
  • Multi-pronged strategy for the management of mealybugs in grapes.
  • Persistence studies of agrochemical residues in soil and water
  • Studies on dissipation rate of new generation pesticides with reference to changing MRL
  • Monitoring of agrochemical residues in grape and grape produce
  • Screening of emerging organic contaminants in fruits and vegetables by GC-MS and LC-MS
  • Profiling of grape varieties for phenolic and aroma compounds from grape to wine
  • Standardization of pre-harvest factors for production of quality red wines
  • Standardization of techniques for minimization of browning in raisins

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