The turkey buzzards

Facing resistance to the introduction of gmos in the North, business houses are waiting to take advantage of the South, including India, where laws are weak

 
Published: Saturday 28 February 1998

The turkey buzzards

-- The daggers are drawn -- and its a fight to the finish between the biotech industry and the environment groups in Europe. While the former wants to push its products into the market without any discrimination, the latter wants better regulation, the right of the public to know and to choose and more transparency. Finding the going tough, cash-rich multinational companies have been eyeing the Third World countries as a major market, since this is where the larger markets and therefore, larger profits are. Here research is meagre, knowledge is poor and there is hardly any public debate.

With a blissfully ignorant public, weak governments with weaker laws, incessant demand for food, and an internationally binding biosafety protocol -- a legal mechanism to ensure safe transfer, handling and usage of gmo s -- yet to be framed, Western biotech companies are dumping their products into these countries.

Some of the major issues that are being decided in the North are whether these products are required or not, the safety of letting loose transgenic plants into the environment and the labelling of genetically modified products so that consumers at least know what they are getting.

Target India
Though India has set procedures to be followed even before research in genetic engineering can be approved, the genetic engineering advisory committee itself flouts the laws that it has set up. Furthermore, there has been no debate on the issue between the public, the scientists and the bureaucrats. No attempts have been made to educate the public and even gauge their opinion.

"As of now, genetically engineered plants seem to be the only viable option to increase production," says P K Ghosh, advisor at the department of biotechnology (dbt) and member of the reviewing committee on genetic manipulation (rcgm) and genetic engineering advisory committee (geac).

Approval for commercial release of gmos rests with the ministry of environment and forests(mef). However, till date, there is no system by which import of transgenics by the ministry of food can be controlled. The directorate general of foreign trade (dgft) may allow the import of soybean, quite blissfully unaware of the fact that the import could contain transgenics. dgft has never consulted the mef and. therefore , it has no idea whether transgenic produce has entered India. Currently India does not have technology to detect transgenic seeds. With declining crop yields and increasing population, there is a need to increase national awareness of the issue of transgenic food production. Trial by field
Most contemporary Indian transgenic research is directed towards plants containing Bt toxic genes. The three private companies involved, namely, Proagro pgs India Limited, New Delhi, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (mahyco) , Mumbai, and Rallis India Limited, Bangalore, are working on transgenic experiments using information acquired from their respective foreign collaborators. (see table: Hot plants)

Proagro- pgs is conducting glasshouse experiments in Gurgaon on transgenic tomato seeds containing a Bt gene. It has also imported transgenic mustard from pgs Belgium and is conducting field trials since 1994 at Gurgaon (Haryana) and Bangalore. The company is analysing the transgenic tomatoes' resistance to Indian fruit worms. The company also plans to conduct glasshouse experiments on transgenic eggplant (brinjal) containing the Bt gene.

The second field trial is being conducted by mahyco in collaboration with Monsanto on imported transgenic seeds of cotton containing Bt genes. The tests are being held at Jalna, Maharashtra. The experiment will evaluate the resistance of this transgenic cotton to bollworm, which is responsible for an annual loss of Rs 160 crore in India. Monsanto and mahyco plan to launch their bollworm-protected cotton in India by the year 2000.

It is anticipated that transgenic mustard genes may be marketed in India by 1999. Transgenic cotton containing Bt toxic gene and transgenic tobacco containing Bt genes may also be commercially available in India soon. By the year 2000, products such as transgenic tomato, brinjal, cabbage and cauliflower containing different Bt genes may also be available in the Indian markets. Other products like transgenic rice, soybean and sugarcane are likely to appear after 2000.

Hot plants
The status of research in India on GMOs
Institute Plants/crops used for transformation Genes inserted Desired trait and current status of the project
Central Tobacco Research Institution, Rajahmundri Rice Bt gene Insect pest resistance. Ready for field evaluted
Bose Institute, Calcutta Rice Bt genes Insect pest resistance, Ready for greenhouse testing
South Campus Delhi Mustard/rape seed Rice Bar, Barnase, Barstar disease resistence To develop suitable hybrid cultivars. Ready for greenhouse experiment
National Botanical Research Institute, Lucknow Cotton Bt gene For pest resistance. Laboratory stage
Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Simla Rice   For pest resistance. Laboratory stage
Central Potato Research Institute, Simla Potato Bt gene   For pest resistance. Ready for green house trails
Progro PGS (India), New Delhi
Brassica/Mustard





Tomato




Brinjal
Brastar, Barnase, Bar




Bt gene




Bt gene
To develop better hybrid cultivars suitable for local conditions.

To develop pest resistance. Greenhouse experiments in progress

To develop pest resistance. Greenhouse experiments in progress

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