12 November 2002
GM CROPS UNDER FIRE AFTER COTTON VENTURE FAILS
Devinder Sharma's article, which we circulated on Saturday, "GM mustard: Playing havoc with food chain" is featured in India's national press today, together with a photograph of farmers from Punjab protesting the proposed commercial release of GM mustard:
Editorial comment, "Plant with caution", can be found at:
The article below from the Thai press provides an excellent overview of the controversy in India.
GM crops under fire after cotton venture fails
Bangkok Post, 12 November 2002
Farmers now find the augmented plant cannot resist pests after all. As activists demand an inquiry, India is having second thoughts about an ambitious foray into a modified foodstuff, GM mustard.
India, which opened its doors to genetically modified (GM) crops in March this year, is in a difficult position now. The opposition to GM crops is mounting in face of reports that the GM cotton variety approved in March has failed to deliver in farmers' fields. And this opposition has forced authorities to go slow on other GM crops in the pipeline. Last week a government panel postponed decision on GM mustard, which if approved would have become the first genetically modified food crop in India.
The government's Department of Biotechnology has emerged a strong advocate of GM crops, although the mandate of increasing production through agricultural research lies with other departments. It has drawn up an ambitious plan of promoting GM crops in India.
The department was instrumental in getting the genetically modified Bt cotton approved and was keen to have GM mustard cleared last week.
Its technical panel on recombinant organisms had already given a go-ahead to GM mustard. But the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee of the ministry of environment - the final authority for approval of GM crops - held back its decision.
The approval of Bt cotton - developed by Monsanto and sold by its Indian ally Mahyco - had strong economic justification. India is the world's third largest cotton grower having the largest area under cotton cultivation, but it yields less than half the world average per hectare. One reason for low productivity is the loss due to pest attacks. By inserting genes from a bacteria - bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) - into cotton seeds, Monsanto has developed new varieties that are claimed to be resistant to bollworm attacks. Bt cotton was approved so that it could enhance productivity.
But farmers who have grown Bt cotton in central India have found that the crop is not resistant to pests and they have been advised by the seed company to spray insecticides.
The department and other government agencies have not offered any explanation for this reported failure of India's first GM crop. But environmental groups have demanded an inquiry into the failure and asked the department to withdraw the approval given to Monsanto.
When commercial approval was granted, Monsanto was asked to tell farmers to set aside 20% area as ``refuge'' in a Bt cotton field. The company markets Bt cotton seeds, along with traditional seeds to be planted as refuge.
``But the company is providing the same hybrid cotton variety (which has the Bt gene) as the non-Bt refuge. This means that in case pests feed on Bt cotton, the company can always claim that it is the refuge on which the insect is feeding. Why can't the department ensure that the seeds for the refuge crop belong to another variety whose shape of leaves, for instance, is different from that of the Bt cotton plant?'' said Devinder Sharma of Forum for Biotechnology, an NGO.
Despite adverse reports on Bt cotton, the department met last week to consider approval of a genetically modified variety of mustard developed by an Indian company called Pro-Agro Seeds. It is Indian arm of the GM giant Aventis and PGS, a Belgian company.
This GM mustard is claimed to be resistant to glufosinate, a broad-spectrum herbicide, and the company claims that the gene modification will help increase mustard productivity by 20-25%.
Unlike cotton, mustard is a food crop in India. Rapeseed mustard is one of the most important oilseed crops in India, cultivated on 6.68 million hectares, mainly in the northern plains. It is one of the major sources of edible oil for human consumption and oilseed cakes for animal feed. The projected demand for oilseed in India is around 34 million tonnes by 2020, of which around 14 million tonnes (41%) is expected to be met by rapeseed mustard.
The new GM mustard variety with five foreign genes in it, including one from tobacco, might pose risks for human health and the environment. Green activists point out the expression of Brazil nut protein in soybean has confirmed that genetic engineering could lead to the expression of allergenic proteins. In the absence of detailed scientific evaluation in India, GM mustard can be dangerous. In fact, the committee has deferred a decision because of lack of health-related data.
Another area of concern relates to its herbicide resistance. It has been engineered to be herbicide-tolerant, so that when a field is sprayed with herbicide, all plants except the GM mustard will die.
It is feared that the use of herbicide-tolerant GM mustard will increase the use of herbicides, thus increasing the amount of toxic residues in food products.
"Pro-Agro has developed this genetically modified mustard that resists glufosinate, its own brand of herbicide. So, the company will sell its GM seeds as well as the herbicide. If farmers don't use glufosinate, they will not be able to control the weeds.
"This herbicide is already approved in India for tea gardens and can easily find its way into mustard fields," says Sharma. GM mustard can also be an emotional issue here, as it contains a tobacco gene. In states like Punjab where mustard is grown and consumed on a large scale, tobacco is banned under the tenets of Sikh religion. This might delay the introduction GM mustard for some time.