Monsanto conducted trials of GM maize without approval, reveals RTI reply

Biotech regulatory panel overlooked violation

By Jyotika Sood
Published: Wednesday 08 February 2012

The Indian subsidiary of US biotech giant Monsanto is in the eye of yet another controversy over genetically modified crop trials. Monsanto India Limited conducted trials of a herbicide-tolerant, genetically modified (GM) maize hybrid without seeking approval from India's biotech regulatory panel, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC).

Documents accessed through Right To Information (RTI) queries by Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), a nationwide network of more than 400 organisations in India, reveal that the herbicide tolerant maize with event NK603 was field-tested at the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) in Dharwad. (Every cell that successfully incorporates the gene of interest represents a unique “event” and the derived transgenic line is identified by such figures.) But the field test was illegal as the approval was for field-testing of two other corn hybrids named 900M Gold and Hishell, stacked with two Bt genes and one herbicide tolerant gene.

The violation was detected by a monitoring team of GEAC led by Pradyumn Kumar of the Directorate of Maize Research. The report, dated May 5, 2011, stated: “Before planting NK603 event treatment in future, permission from competent authority may be obtained.”

Talking to Down to Earth, sources in the team said during their site visit they observed rows of herbicide tolerant maize with event NK603 planted alongside the approved hybrid corn varieties. “Our work was to just submit the report to GEAC and it is they who should have taken action,” said a member of the monitoring team. When Kumar was asked about the findings, he refused to comment.

Monsanto's defence

When officials at Monsanto India Limited were asked about the violation, they said the company has been in India since 1949, and has brought tremendous value to advancements in Indian agriculture as a legitimate and responsible business entity, operating under Indian law and abiding by all government regulations and policy. “We have partnered with Indian farmers to create value for them, consumers, Indian seed companies and research organizations. We have developed innovative technologies to help farmers produce and conserve more, by using fewer resources,” they said. “We are confident that our country’s science-based regulatory system will continue to support research-led innovations in agriculture and will help improve crop productivity, thereby benefitting Indian farmers, consumers, environment and our nation as a whole,” they added.

Monsanto’s application along with protocol for biosafety research level II (BRL-II) trial of Monsanto’s hybrid corn varieties with stacked traits has been been approved by GEAC. The Directorate of Maize research has reviewed and confirmed the trial’s protocol, and the trials have been conducted in accordance with it, the company said.
On November 15, 2010, Monsanto had sought permission from GEAC to conduct BRL-II trials (field trials) of the two transgenic corn hybrids, 900M Gold and Hishell, during Kharif 2011. GEAC approved nine locations, including UAS Dharwad for the trials. Then on December 8, 2010, the company made another request to conduct the same trials during late Rabi season (December 2010-January 2011) at five locations, in addition to the approved nine. GEAC approved the five locations.

Repeat offender?

This is not the first time Monsanto has allegedly violated the law. In March 2011 GM maize with the event MON 89034 and event NK603 were uprooted from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) station at Pusa in Bihar’s Samastipur district. Monsanto had then stated that GEAC sent them a letter withdrawing permission for the trial but before the company could respond, the IARI station had destroyed the trial (see “Who is watching GM crops?”, May 31, 2011).

Sridhar Radhakrishnan of Coalition for GM Free India, a collective of activists, says, “ASHA has been able to lay its hands on just one report but we suspect that such violations must have occurred at 13 other sites. It is astonishing that GEAC overlooked it.” He demands action by GEAC on the violation.

ASHA convener Kavitha Kuruganti says the violation appears to be a repetition of an earlier episode of herbicide tolerant cotton (Roundup Ready Flex or RRF cotton) planted by Monsanto’s affiliate, Mahyco, without permission.

GEAC, in that instance, found the clarifications submitted by Mahyco highly unsatisfactory and warned that any non-compliance in future would attract punitive actions under Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.   

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