Trial or error?

The Indian government grants permission for trials of transgenic cotton

Published: Tuesday 15 August 2000

the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Com-pany ( mahyco ) has been permitted to undertake large-scale field trials and generate environmental safety data on transgenic cotton in various agro-climatic regions of the country. This was stated in an official release from the Union ministry of environment and forests ( mef ). Permission is yet to be given for the commercialisation of transgenic cotton - But cotton in this case, which derives its name from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis , the original host of the pest resistant gene. The transnational transgenic seed giant Monsanto has a partial stake in mahyco .

The Mumbai-based mahyco had earlier made presentations before the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation, chaired by Ashish Dutta, eminent professor of biotechnology and vice chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University.It had been given the go-ahead for small-scale field trials in 1996. Now, the next step has also been cleared by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee ( geac ) of the mef .

Biosafety issues, however, still need to be considered. Demonstration of the technology to farmers will have to wait until enough information is available through large-scale trials, which can now take place in plots ranging between 85 hectares and 150 hectares. "But no commercial-scale plantation or usage of transgenic cotton seeds will be allowed," the release clarifies.

Several organisations have been opposing transgenic crops, arguing that they undermine the agro-biodiversity that has been nurtured over the centuries by India's poor farmers. The environmental pressure group Greenpeace issued a press release which said that move to "permit large-scale field trials of Monsanto- mahyco 's genetically manipulated cotton could signal the beginning of the end of India's rural base of small farmer-owned biodiversity based on the agrarian economy." The group argues that the decision is "questionable both in terms of process and in terms of the quality of results it would yield."

The geac , on its part, has stressed that mahyco will have to undertake nutritional studies in buffaloes and cows to investigate the health effects of the transgenic cotton oil on animal health, milk production and the quality of milk as well. Further studies on insect resistance, stability of the bacterial gene that is being used in the cotton, and other environmental impact studies have to be conducted before the final permission for commercialisation is put in place. mahyco has been given one year's time from July 2000 to gather such data and put in an application for commercial use of transgenic cotton. The mef has also to satisfy itself about the agronomic performance of transgenic cotton.

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