The GM question
Are hybrids always a precursor to a genetically modified (GM) version of the crop? In the case of maize, both the champions of GM and the opposition believe GM maize is round the corner.
Currently, four multinationals are conducting field trials of GM maize in India. Monsanto India Ltd is way ahead with its insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant maize (a hybrid with two stacked genes) in the final lap of biosafety tests. This is BRL-II, or biosafety research level trial II, which calls for tests in eight to nine locations in different agro-climatic zones.
Three other companies, Pioneer Overseas Corporation, Dow Agrosciences and Syngenta Biosciences, all top multinationals, are also in the race. They are in BRL-I which are limited— fewer locations—trials conducted over a two-year period. Pioneer’s is a stacked event similar to Monsanto’s, while the other two are just insect-resistant.
Maize scientist Sain Dass, who is president of the maize lobby, the Indian Maize Development Association (IMDA), is pretty clear that GM maize is absolutely necessary to “increase production and productivity and to save marginal farmers from the high cost of agriculture”. Dass, who was earlier director of the public sector, Directorate of Maize Research in Delhi, was in the news when he attacked the government for withdrawing Monsanto’s BRL-II trials in Samastipur, Bihar. That rule was made by then minister of environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh after Chief Minister Nitish Kumar complained about the trial taking place without his knowledge.
“The spread of GM maize has always been preceded by the aggressive promotion of maize itself so that farmers once trapped in maize cultivation can be easily moved to GM maize. This is exactly what happened with cotton,” says P V Satheesh, director of the Hyderabad-based Deccan Development Society, who has been in the forefront of the fight against GM crops. Globally, maize is the largest GM food crop and occupies more than 25 per cent of the area under biotech crops.
Kavitha Kuruganti, convenor of ASHA, strikes a similar note. “When the shift to hybrid seed happens in this crop, the demand for pesticides and fertilisers goes up. What’s more, companies like Monsanto are waiting in the wings to bring in herbicide-tolerant GM maize which would ensure two markets for them—that for herbicides and seeds.”
But unlike Satheesh who views the GM cotton episode as a nightmare, IMDA believes that repeating the Bt cotton story with maize would “rightfully put India on the world map”. As the two camps slug it out, Monsanto is finding little to comfort itself with at the moment. Of its five trials for rabi in 2010-11, only one has taken place while there has been no movement on the nine kharif trials approved by regulator, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee. Under the new rule, Monsanto has to get clearance from the states before trials can be conducted in their jurisdiction. This is a setback for Monsanto, which, according to a 2009 presentation, had hoped to release its insect-resistant hybrid in 2012, followed by one for drought tolerance in 2014-15, nitrogen use efficiency in 2017 and yield booster in 2018-19.
But in the wake of the new March rule, mandating state clearance, these targets have gone for a toss. GM maize, it seems, will be a while coming.