Frontline, Vol 19 - Issue 13, Jun. 22 - Jul. 5, 2002
India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU published fortnightly from Chennai, India
The door has been opened for the entry of genetically modified plant varieties in India. The battle against GM varieties has begun too.
THE controversial decision by the Government of India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), on March 26, 2002, to grant approval for the commercial release of genetically modified Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton hybrids developed by Mahyco in collaboration with the U.S.-based life sciences major, Monsanto, has opened the door to the entry of GM plant varieties in the country. Bt cotton seeds are genetically engineered to protect the cotton from attacks by American bollworm, the plant's most common pest.
The decision has come under attack by scientists, academics and farmers' groups who have led a four-year-long campaign against the introduction of GM cotton. Other GM varieties, they say, will follow, as will genetically engineered food. The introduction of GM varieties, according to them, will create irreversible environment and health damage, while putting at risk conventional agricultural practices that millions of small farmers in the country engage in.
For Mahyco and Monsanto the decision could not have come a moment too soon. Monsanto is the world's leading GM cotton seed producer, and has been waiting for this decision by the government of a major cotton-producing country like India. It has invested millions of dollars in promoting GM varieties in India. Monsanto owns a 26 per cent equity stake in Mahyco, and Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Pvt Ltd is their 50:50 joint venture marketing company. Mahyco was first given permission by the GEAC to carry out open field trials of its transgenic cotton crop in July 2000. Permission to allow Mahyco to start commercial production of Bt cotton seed was withheld last June by the GEAC, which asked the company to repeat open multi-locations field trials of its cotton transgenic under the direct supervision of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR).
The permission granted by the GEAC now to Mahyco for the commercial release of its transgenic cotton seed came with certain conditions attached to it. Only three of Mahyco's Bt cotton hybrids were approved for commercial release based on the results of field trials carried out by the ICAR in central and southern locations. The fourth hybrid, which was specifically meant for the northern States (Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan) did not get GEAC approval. Field trials in the case of this particular variety were not undertaken last year as the mandate to the ICAR to supervise the trials came well after last year's planting season. A fresh set of trials will now have to be conducted in eight northern locations before the variety can be cleared by the GEAC. Further, the approval for three varieties was conditional on Bt cotton-growers planting at least 20 per cent of their field area under non-Bt cotton varieties, to provide a 'refuge' area for the bollworm pest, thus ensuring that it does not develop resistance to Bt cotton. The GEAC stipulated that the refuge area under non-Bt varieties should occupy a minimum of five rows along the periphery of the farmer's field or 20 per cent of the total area under both Bt and non-Bt cotton, whichever is more. Such a regulation would of course be impossible to monitor once extensive cultivation of Bt cotton begins. According to a Mahyco spokesperson, the company will release 105,000 units of seed this season, adequate for the cultivation of 105,000 acres (42,490 hectares). Karnataka has been provided seeds for different cotton hybrids for cultivation on 21,000 acres (8,500 ha).
Critics of GM technology have questioned the scientific rigour of the GEAC's approval process. "In what appears to be the biggest scandal that has hit Indian science, the GEAC circumvented scientific norms to approve hastily the commercial introduction of India's first genetically modified crop," said Devinder Sharma of the Forum of Biotechnology and Food Security, New Delhi. "The entire expenditure for research on nine genetically modified crops is Rs.60 crores. And it is entirely being borne by the industry. The industry therefore has a vested interest. How can you trust that data?" he asks. According to him, the crop trials for Bt cotton in the first three years were conducted by Mahyco and the data were never made public. Second, during the first three years of research trials, the crop was not once sown in time. When the crop is sown late it escapes insect attack which peak in the first two months. "How can research data from such trials be accepted?" he asks. Third, the GEAC, according to him, should have asked the company to repeat the first set of research trials for another three years, instead of for just one year. "Since when have we started compromising on science?" asks Sharma. "We still do not know what will be the impact on human health once the genetically modified seed goes into the food chain. Unlike in China, where Bt cotton does not go into the food chain, cottonseed oil is used as edible oil and the oil cake goes for cattle consumption."
The biggest blow suffered by the GM industry in recent times has, however, come from an unexpected source. China, whose successful experiments with Bt cotton were held up as the ultimate success story of the wonder cotton seed by Monsanto, is now beaming out a different message. The results of a recent study undertaken by the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science, which is part of China's State Environment Protection Administration, has shaken the industry. The study, the results of which were first reported by the Xinhua News Agency, suggests that Bt cotton, which is planted in 1.5 million hectares and accounts for 30 per cent of China's cotton acreage, is damaging the environment despite its success in controlling the bollworm pest. Transgenic cotton appears to be harming the natural parasitic enemies of the bollworm and seems to be encouraging other pests, the study indicates.
The diversity index of the insect community in Bt cotton fields is lower than conventional cotton fields while the pest dominant concentration index is higher, according to researchers in the study. Populations of pests other than cotton bollworm have increased in Bt cotton fields and some have even replaced them as primary pests because the GM plant is slow at controlling those pests, the report says. Scientists in the study also verified, through laboratory tests and field monitoring, that cotton bollworm will develop resistance to GM cotton after being planted for eight to ten years.
Monsanto, which controls more than 80 per cent of the Bt cotton grown worldwide, was quick to dismiss the research on the grounds that the study was done in cooperation with the international environmental lobby group, Greenpeace, and was therefore compromised. According to the company, whose public relations machinery has gone into overdrive on the issue, the China Academy of Sciences is "understood" to be preparing a paper for China's leadership that refutes the Nanjing study. The inventor of Chinese Bt cotton, Guo Sandui, who is a member of the Academy, has also refuted the Nanjing study, according to a Dow Jones news report that Monsanto quotes from.
When asked for his reaction to claims of the Nanjing study, Raju Barwale, managing director, Mahyco, suggested that the results were questionable owing to the involvement in the study of Greenpeace, "an avowed opponent of plant biotechnology". He said that the "veracity of the study had been questioned by Chinese scientists themselves" and that the report "lies outside of the broad scientific view of Bt cotton and the benefits this technology is delivering to growers in China". He cited three studies published in scientific journals that point to reduced pesticide use leading to larger beneficial insect populations in Bt cotton, as well as improved producer satisfaction and grower safety. "There is no evidence of resistance to Bt crops anywhere in world agriculture including six years of commercial planting on millions of acres." He went on to question the methodology of the study saying that the data were "based on previously conducted laboratory studies and these do not reflect actual field conditions".
To discount the scientific veracity of the Nanjing study primarily on the grounds that Greenpeace collaborated with it may not be entirely convincing, and is an argument that falls outside the parameters of scientific debate and inquiry. The principal investigator of the study, Xu Haigen, is a distinguished scientist who heads the expert group drafting China's National Biosafety Framework, the country's policy blueprint for biosafety regulations. The Nanjing study has in fact said that Bt cotton has been highly effective in preventing bollworm attack, the primary purpose for which it was developed. It has, however, also pointed to what appears to be the negative impact of the technology on related environmental factors, which over time may have extremely damaging consequences for the sustainability of agriculture.
In Karnataka the anti-GM lobby was quick to react to news of the Chinese study. The State has a history of militant action by farmers against multinational entry into the food and agricultural sectors. In 1998, angry activists belonging to the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha burnt cotton fields where Bt cotton seed was under trial. Scientists and activists of the Environment Support Group have written to Chief Minister S.M. Krishna urging him to stop the introduction of Bt cotton in the State in the light of the Chinese findings. This appeal is one of several such appeals made by environment groups to Chief Ministers of cotton-growing States urging them to disallow Bt cotton in their respective States despite the clearance accorded to its introduction by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests.
Citing the Nanjing study as proof that the use of genetically modified seed is the equivalent of "planned ecological disaster", the group has urged the Chief Minister to disallow sales of Bt seed in the State. It has also asked him to initiate long-term studies of the impact of Bt cotton, encourage the expansion of organic cotton, and conduct an investigation into whether Bt cotton was illegally introduced in the State even before Central government clearance. The battle against genetically modified varieties, now a part of the Indian agricultural landscape, has just begun.