India Debate Over GM cotton Heats Up
State of Karnataka Anxious for Bt Cotton, Monsanto
July 02, 2001 02:22 PM
BANGALORE, India, Jul 1, 2001 (Inter Press Service via COMTEX) -- As the world debates over the safety of genetically modified crops, India's southern state of Karnataka is anxious to reap the advantages of new technology and thus wants quick approval for the agrochemical giant Monsanto's Bt cotton.
Indeed, the Karnataka government reacted with strong criticism last week after green activists forced India's federal Ministry of Environment and Forests to defer by a year a decision on the commercial planting of Monsanto's Bollgard variety of Bt cotton.
With Greenpeace International and other activist groups breathing down its neck, the ministry ordered yet another year of trials for Bollgard, which has been field tested in India since 1998 by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (MAHYCO). Monsanto has a substantial stake in this firm.
The final round of tests will be conducted under strict supervision by scientists from the federal government's Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) which, in the past, has expressed doubts about the scientific soundness of MAHYCO's tests.
Green groups like Greenpeace, the New Delhi-based Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security and the Pune-based Kalpavriksh praised the precautionary approach adopted by the ministry's Genetic Engineering Approval Council (GEAC).
But Karnataka Agriculture Minister T.B. Jayachandra viewed the approval council's decision as an unnecessary hurdle between the laboratory and the farmer. Tests are over, and it is time to implement technology, Jayachandra said.
Karnataka expects investments worth millions of dollars in emerging biotechnology, funds that it hopes would partly make up for diminishing trade and job prospects in the state's once booming information technology sector hit by the economic slowdown in the United States.
Karnataka accounts for 30 percent of software exports from India. About 90 percent of software from Karnataka -- produced mainly in the state's city and global information technology hub of Bangalore -- is exported to the United States.
The GM cotton variety Bollgard is integral to the biotechnology boom that Karnataka expects to reap after advertising tax concessions, quick clearances, low-tariff energy and floor space for companies involved in drug research, bio-informatics and genetic engineering.
Bollgard, the result of biotechnology innovation by Monsanto, involves the insertion of a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) into the germplasm of a native variety of cotton, making it resistant to dreaded bollworms. Through this process, the quality of the bacterium's natural resistance is passed on to cotton to some extent.
Karnataka is also pinning its hopes on biotechnology because of what its officials believe may be the potential that Bt cotton has from easing its farmers from the heavy reliance use of pesticides in cotton cultivation to prevent pest infestation. Karnataka is already the fourth largest cotton-producing state in India. Likewise, cotton is a crop that accounts for more than half of the pesticides used in the entire in the agriculture sector.
Indian farmers frequently fall into debt traps due to the spiraling cost of pesticides, and GM cotton is being promoted by MAHYCO-Monsanto and a section of biotechnologists as an eco-friendly, farmer-friendly, option.
S.P. Singh, chief of ICAR's directorate of biological control, acknowledges the questions that remain about GM crops. He cites published research in the United States that showed GM crops' adverse impact on certain butterflies species by entering their food chain.
At the same time, he points out the potential merits of GM crops. If pesticide use can be brought down, that alone will be a major benefit to farmers and the environment, Singh added.
But MAHYCO-Monsanto's field trials were marked by protests from local farmers and the environmental lobby. A group of protesting farmers set ablaze GM cotton fields in the Haveri and Raichur areas of Karnataka early this year.
Farmers' leader Prof M.D. Nanjundaswamy is cautious about the government's decision last week to extend GM trials. That is not the final solution -- we want a ban on GM technology. Nanjundaswamy argues that GM crops kill non-target organisms, including natural predators of pests, cross-pollinate other species and contribute to pesticide resistance.
Monsanto scientists, for their part, have denied such claims with regard to their GM cotton. Earlier, they presented their own research data at a seminar at the prestigious Indian Institute of Science here. But MAHYCO-Monsanto has been silent about the Ministry of Environment and Forests' recognition of the possibility of gene flow through pollen from GM cotton fertilizing non-target plants.
Biotechnology firms have even charged fees from farmers for the accidental fertilization of crops on their fields by GM crops in neighboring areas. In other parts of the world, there is no mechanism to compensate farmers for genetic pollution. Thus, activists say, the country is better off going slow on GM crops.
At a time when the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMO) is at a nascent stage in the country, there should be no haste in taking a decision to commercialize them, Devinder Sharma of the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security said in a widely circulated statement.
Green groups have also challenged the idea that Bt cotton is the best solution to pests and note that organic cotton farmers in western Maharashtra state have evolved farming methods that have completely eliminated the use of pesticides.
Meantime, while the decision on Bt cotton hangs in the balance, there should be more public participation and transparency in the processes, including more non-official members in committees that screen GMO releases, the green groups said.