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Probe nails scientists in GM crop scandal

1.Indian research council in GM crop scandal
2.Probe nails scientists in GM cotton scandal
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1.Indian research council in GM crop scandal
Farming News (UK), 17 December 2012
 http://www.farming.co.uk/news/article/7685

A committee set up to investigate a scandal surrounding India's first public-sector GM crop (a genetically modified cotton plant), have indicted scientists involved for deliberately misleading regulators.

BN-Bt cotton

The crop in question is Bikaneri Narma-Bt cotton, known as BN-Bt cotton. The plant was designed to kill insect pests by releasing Bt toxins and released for sale in 2009. It was developed by a number of research organisations working with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). Developers claimed to have used a novel gene sequence created 'in-house,' however, the cotton seeds were withdrawn from sale in December 2011, after they were found to contain a gene patented in the United States by agribusiness Monsanto.

The committee investigating the scandal was set up by ICAR itself. In its report, published last week, the committee accused ICAR and two research institutions involved in producing the crop of "scientific, institutional and ethical failure". The committee euphemistically said scientists at the institutions in New Delhi, Nagpur and Dharwad had 'contaminated' the seeds with Monsanto's MON-531 gene and claimed to have created a new gene, BNLA106.

Although evidence of another gene in one of the early samples of BN-Bt was present, the panel of investigators said they could not prove that this was BNLA106 and requested further tests be carried out.

The panel also discovered evidence of a cover-up, suggesting the cotton's developers were aware of the 'contamination'. It also indicted two scientists for conflict of interest, as they had been involved in both developing the GM seed and later approving its commercial release.

The seeds had been released to compete against GM seeds sold by agribusinesses; the publicly-developed BN-Bt seeds were available at a fraction of the price and seed from the crops could be saved and reused, which major agribusinesses do not allow. However, seed company Mahyco, a partner of Monsanto in India, complained that the BN-Bt contained a gene developed by Monsanto.

However, the gene in question is used widely in GM crops sold in India as the 1985 patent on MON-531 has expired.

The scandal raises questions about the regulation of GM crops and biosecurity in one of the world's major agricultural producers, where the technology is still highly controversial.

Strong voices oppose GM crops in India and maintain that patent laws should not be applied to seeds. Delhi-based sustainable food expert Dr Vandana Shiva has said that current trends in industrial agriculture, including patenting seeds present a "serious risk to the future of the world's seed and food security," as they limit growers' access to seeds, either by copyrighting genetically modified seeds as new organisms or protecting a certain breeding method, which prevents the saving and exchange of seeds.

She maintains that, in addition to the food security implications, locally adapted and culturally important crop varieties are suffering as a result of the use of patent laws.

In the UK, sustainable farming advocates have reacted strongly to the unequivocal support for GM shown by Environment minister Owen Paterson during an interview last week. Several interest groups have warned of a potential industry-backed push to introduce GM crops into the UK; although EU regulations covering GM remain strict and the devolved governments of Wales and Scotland oppose the technology, the Westminster government is a supporter of GM within Europe. 

Soil Association Scotland director Laura Stewart responded to Mr Paterson's assertions that the introduction of GM crops would benefit the UK, and that concerns over the technology are "humbug." She said, "Studies have demonstrated that GM crops do not offer a sustainable solution. Instead, they lock farmers into depending on costly inputs from a handful of powerful chemical companies and, undoubtedly, bring the production of food further under corporate control."

Summarising a number of reservations held over GM crops, Stewart added, "Instead of reducing pesticide use, data from the US suggests that more potent chemicals are used on these crops than on non-GM alternatives… Once GM crops are out in the environment, they cannot be contained, so they deny that choice. Meanwhile, regulators don't undertake good enough safety checks or even ask whether new technologies are in the public interest."
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2.Probe nails scientists in GM cotton scandal
JAIDEEP HARDIKAR
The Telegraph, December 17 2012
 http://www.telegraphindia.com/1121217/jsp/nation/story_16327224.jsp

Nagpur, Dec. 16: An expert committee probing a scandal relating to India’s first public sector-developed genetically modified (GM) cotton has indicted the scientists involved for foul play.

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research, which oversaw the project, admitted last year that the Bikaneri Narma-Bt (BN-Bt) cotton contained not an “indigenously” created gene sequence as claimed but a gene patented by US firm Monsanto.

The committee has also indicted the ICAR for scientific, institutional and ethical failure. 

Indirectly, the probe report raises doubts on the efficacy of India’s bio-safety regulatory mechanism, considering the ease with which it was fooled about the GM cotton’s genetic composition, although the bio-safety clearance itself is not under question.

The five-member probe panel was set up by the ICAR itself and was headed by Sudhir Sopory, JNU vice-chancellor and plant biologist. It handed in its 129-page report in August but the ICAR made it public only yesterday,

On February 6 this year, The Telegraph had reported how BN-Bt was released commercially in mid-2009 and planted extensively. The seeds were not only far cheaper than other available GM cotton seeds but, unlike the rest, didn’t need to be bought every year — they could be reused from the previous year’s plants.

But in December 2009, the ICAR suddenly withdrew the seeds. In December 2011, it acknowledged that the gene sequence in the BN-Bt had not been developed in-house. The gene used was Mon-531, available in 2,000-odd cotton seed varieties sold in the Indian market (because Monsanto’s 1985 patent on it has expired).

With private sector Bt cotton seeds flooding the market, BN-Bt was developed as a collaborative public sector effort by the National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology (NRCPB), New Delhi; University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad; and the Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur.

The results were published by the principal scientists in Current Science in 2007. According to this paper, the Dharwad university developed BN-Bt using an in-house gene sequence, BNLA106, developed from the cry1Ac gene-construct provided by the Delhi institute.

The Nagpur institute carried out the bio-safety and field trials and later sold the seeds to farmers after the regulator, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), approved their commercialisation.

That the seeds contained Mon-531 and not BNLA106 came to light after two scientists from the Dharwad institution filed an RTI query.

The Sopory panel has confirmed that the “contamination” — which appears to be a euphemism for foul play — by Mon-531 happened before the commercialisation but went undetected by the GEAC.

It said the only Bt gene found in the BN-Bt samples from the fields was Mon-531, but a “purified” sample provided by the Dharwad institute — when the scandal first broke — had a gene sequence other than Mon-531. The panel said it could not verify if this was BNLA106 and suggested third-party verification.

It cited another anomaly. The cry1Ac gene was developed by Illimar Altosaar of the University of Ottawa and obtained by R.P. Sharma, former director of the Delhi institute, by signing a material transfer agreement (MTA) that allows only educational use. In 2006, Sharma tried to negotiate a freedom-to-operate agreement — which would have allowed other uses — with Altosaar but failed for reasons that remain unclear.

But in 2006, the ICAR decided that Sharma had signed the MTA in his “personal capacity”, that a freedom-to-operate agreement was not necessary, and that the gene construct would be referred to as an “NRCPB construct”.

The committee said, “It was a violation of the MTA and, to say the least, unethical.”