A protest in Karnataka

Print edition : October 10, 1998

THE Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore has denied that the research agreement it has reached with Monsanto Enterprises, the Indian subsidiary of the American seed giant Monsanto Company, U.S.A., has anything to do with research on the Terminator gene technology. The denial was in response to a one-month "ultimatum" given by the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha, a farmers' organisation, to the IISc in August asking it to terminate the agreement.

Professor G. Padmanabhan, former Director of the IISc, during whose tenure the agreement with Monsanto was signed, told Frontline that the research areas covered under the agreement were clear. He said that collaborative research with Monsanto would be carried out in three areas - in bioinformatics, that is, genome sequencing data; in functional genomics; and, in the third stage in the use of the research results thus generated to prove the nutritive value of cereals. Claiming that the agreement with Monsanto as also the agreements signed with other industries were "entirely on our terms," Dr. Padmanabhan said that it was Monsanto which first approached the IISc soon after it set up office in India. "All research projects have to be cleared by two committees - one consists of the faculty from the Institute and representatives of Monsanto, with the Institute's Director as its Chairman, and the other is the Bioethics Committee of the Institute," he said.

The Institute has provided Monsanto 12,000 sq ft of land where the construction of a research laboratory is under way. As part of a programme to promote interaction between the IISc and the industry, the Institute's Society for Innovation and Development (SID) has entered into agreements with several industries. All these industries have been provided space to set up laboratories on the campus. "We are developing the concept of a science park," Dr. Padmanabhan said.

Asked how the research interests of Monsanto would fit in with the requirements of Indian agriculture, especially in the context of its development of potentially dangerous technologies such as the Terminator gene, he maintained that there were sufficient safeguards to ensure that the research activities were in no way "detrimental to the interests of Indian farmers". "All practical applications arising out of joint research have to be cleared not only by the Bioethics Committee but also by the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India," he said. In any case, the Government had issued instructions against entertaining patents in India for the Terminator gene technology and had banned import of seeds that could contain the gene, he added.

Reacting to reports on the threat that India's agriculture and food security would face if seeds incorporating the Terminator gene are allowed free entry, Monsanto issued a press statement on August 27, in which it sought to distance itself from the technology and its development. "Although it would be premature to comment on the Delta and Pine Land technology before it has been thoroughly tested, since Monsanto does not own Delta and Pine Land, it is speculative to discuss their activities in general or those related to the Terminator gene in specific," the statement clarified. However, the July-August 1998 issue of RAFI Communique (the newsletter of Rural Advancement Foundation Inter-national), devoted to the consolidation of the seed industry worldwide, reported that Monsanto acquired "the world's largest cotton seed company, Delta and Pine Land, owner of the Terminator technology patent (for $1.8 billion)."

Monsanto's press clarification on the Terminator technology (which it prefers to call "Gene Protection Technology") states: "The idea was to develop a process that would provide gene protection in plants, in this case tobacco, a commonly used experimental plant." This suggests that Terminator technology would be restricted to tobacco, whereas the patent for the technology clearly indicates that the method can be used on a variety of plants, including food crops.

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