The newcomer

Transgenic cotton is poised to enter the Indian market

Published: Thursday 15 June 2000

Btcottonindia is opening its doors to the transgenic revolution -- or should we say has initiated the process for the final green signal. The Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Limited ( mahyco ) that has been conducting research on Bt cotton, has already received permission to carry out field trials of the crop from the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation ( rcgm ) chaired by Ashish Dutta, eminent biotechnologist and vice chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

However, contrary to reports appearing in the media, this clearance does not allow mahyco to go ahead with planting and commercialising of the Bt cotton crop in India. It only clears the way for mahyco to put forward its application to the Genetic Engineering Evaluation Committee ( geac ), a statutory body created under the Environment Protection Act. The geac 's permission will be required to commercialise Bt crops in India. And the day might not be very far, say officials at the department of biotechnology ( dbt ). Although refusing to comment on the "controversial" issue, dbt officials nevertheless hope that "something concrete will emerge in a month or so." The Indian authorities' tight-lipped approach to the issue could probably be because of the involvement of the us life science major Monsanto -- it holds a partial stake in mahyco .

mahyco has been involved in experimenting with transgenic cotton for the last four years. These were conducted in glass houses initially and later moved to open fields but only at a small scale. The decision to start deliberating on commercialising transgenic crops is historic in the sense that for the first time India has given a clearance to a genetically engineered variety of an agricultural crop.

This particular variety of cotton contains a gene obtained from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). The bacterial gene introduced into the cotton variety protects it from the attack of the common pest of cotton, Lepidoptera, and Monsanto argues that growing Bt cotton would help farmers save money that they currently spend on chemical pesticides. But reports have been pouring in for a long time now, indicating the loss of resistance in Bt crops with time and Bt genes escaping from pollen grains might harm other crops in the neighbourhood and the environment. But, claims mahyco , Bt cotton also promises a few benefits. To begin with, it requires only two sprays of chemical pesticides against eight sprays for the normal variety. Besides, the yield is about 25-75 per cent higher than the normal variety.

Genetic engineering has been surrounded by debates and controversies for a long time now and the case in India is no exception. A petition was filed in the Supreme Court by the New Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology ( rfste ), challenging the legality of the field trials. It also sought a ban on the introduction of Bt cotton in India. dbt sources, however, point out that since the clearance was given after discussions with the law ministry, it does not amount to contempt of court. On the other hand, rfste director Vandana Shiva says that what dbt has done is illegal because her petition to the Supreme Court has demanded that dbt should submit all results of the field trial to the court before taking any action.

Whatever be the case, Bt cotton has received a clearance from the rcgm and it may not take mahyco long to commercialise its patented variety in India. Needless to say, the future of transgenic crops in India now hinges on what ever decision the geac takes on Bt cotton. A green signal to Bt cotton would also throw open the gates for other genetically modified ( gm ) crops. In this context, the next in line after Bt cotton is the gm mustard.

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