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The transgenosis debate

Print edition : Jul 07, 2001 T+T-

Even as public pressure for transparency in the matter of the introduction of transgenic crops is set to grow in India, a decision on whether to allow them in stands postponed.

THE crucial decision on whether India should join the league of 14 countries that have allowed genetically modified (GM) crops in their agriculture sector has been postponed by another year. A meeting of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests held on June 19 rejected a proposal by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco) seeking environmental clearance for large scale commercial cultivation of Bt cotton, a transgenic cotton variety developed in a joint venture between Mahyco and Monsanto, the multinational. The GEAC has asked Mahyco to conduct field trials for another year, under the aegis of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), with a new set of scientific parameters to be addressed.

After the completion of the first set of field trials, for which Mahyco received permission in 1998, the company got permission for yet another round of large-scale trials in mid-2000. The data from the second round of trials proved unsatisfactory, owing to a number of reasons cited in a statement put out by the GEAC. The GEAC statement said that the decision to reject Mahyco's request for permission for large-scale commercial cultivation of Bt cotton was taken after "in-depth and careful analysis". The GEAC, which also received inputs from the Union Ministries of Agriculture and Health, said that although Bt cotton hybrids performed better than the non-Bt crops "in terms of requirement of lesser sprays and insecticides", the trials of 2000 were not conducted in time. Moreover, the dates of planting were late by as much as three months in some cases. Hence, the insect-pest load was low. The GEAC said: "The yield data and the net agronomic advantage derived from such a study could not reflect true values."

The rejection of its application is undoubtedly a setback for Mahyco, which has put in considerable investment over the last five years in its Bt cotton project. However, the company has chosen to gloss over the reversal. R.B. Barwale, managing director of Mahyco, told Frontline that the GEAC's acknowledgement that Bt cotton has performed better than conventional cotton against bollworm infestation "vindicates Mahyco's stand that Bt cotton technology is most effective in tackling the bollward menace in an environment-friendly manner". He said that Mahyco "looked forward to continue working closely with all government regulatory agencies and the ICAR in order to make this technology available to Indian farmers at the earliest".

It seems that Barwale's statement indicates Mahyco's willingness to work with the ICAR on the fresh set of trials that the GEAC has asked for. The GEAC has said that large-scale trials be conducted under the "direct supervision" of the ICAR under the Advanced Varietal Trials of the All India Coordinated Cotton Improvement Project.

Bt cotton trials, permission for which Mahyco got as early as 1998, have attracted protests from farmer's organisations, environmental groups and concerned agricultural scientists. In Karnataka, the crop on fields where Bt cotton trials were conducted were set on fire by activists of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha in 1998. In anticipation of the June 19 meeting, over 150 organisations signed a petition opposing the use of genetically engineered crops and demanding public release of the data collected from field trials. Perhaps, the pressure from these groups for transparency in the deliberations of government regulatory bodies might have persuaded the GEAC to hold a 'public dialogue' on June 18. Those who attended it included scientists from the Central Institute of Cotton Research, representatives of the Department of Biotechnology and Mahyco, members of the Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC) and representatives of the farming community from various parts of the country.

At the public dialogue, environmental groups expressed concerns about the impact of Bt cotton on the environment and the reliability and validity of field data. A scientific paper submitted by Doreen Stabinsky, science adviser with Greenpeace International, drew attention to three concerns which have not been sufficiently addressed by Mahyco. The first is the possibility of resistance development of the Bollworm that "is most likely to occur". Has Monsanto-Mahyco submitted a resistance management plan, she asked, which is mandatory in countries like the United States? Second, the 'aad' gene present in Bt cotton confers resistance to streptomycin, commonly used in the treatment of tuberculosis. Has Mahyco evaluated the impact of Bt cotton on public health? Finally, Mahyco had not submitted any data on the likely impact of Bt cotton on non-target species.

Although the GEAC has responded to several of these concerns, its decision to withhold permission for large-scale commercial cultivation of Bt cotton is a temporary one as it does not reflect the government's thinking on the issue of transgenic technology. Given the proven short-term ability of transgenic crops in boosting output and productivity of agricultural crops, there is every likelihood that the GEAC, in a year from now, will give Mahyco the green signal on Bt cotton. "Monsanto or no Monsanto, we need this technology," a senior representative of the GEAC told Frontline. "Cotton output in India ranges from 300 to 330 kg a hectare. Bt cotton averages 700 to 800 kg a hectare. In China, where Bt cotton has been extensively used, the national average output is 950 kg cotton a hectare," the representative said.

The public pressure for transparency in the matter of the introduction of transgenic crops is likely to grow further in India. Mahyco is more acceptable to the public mind than Monsanto, and sensitivity to the demand for public disclosure by the company will make its path smoother. However, even if transgenic crops are introduced, the need to label GMO food products will be the next major demand from India's strong anti-GMO lobby.