Illegal Bt cotton in India haunts regulators

In the first litigation of its kind, India's environment ministry is preparing to file a case with the supreme court, charging Navbaharat Seeds (Ahmedabad) with violating the Environment Protection Act (1986). The move follows the discovery of $30 million worth of unauthorized GM cotton growing on some 11,000 hectares in the western state of Gujarat. While the episode highlights the inadequacy of India's regulatory system, it also indicates how the tide has turned in favor of biotechnology in the country.illustration

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CS Prakash says the episode indicates the eagerness of Indian farmers to adopt biotechnology and has highlighted the torpidity of the country's regulatory system

Suspicions were aroused when 30% of cotton crops in Gujarat were unaffected by the bollworm infestation that was sweeping the state between June and October this year. According to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the environment ministry's apex body that regulates large-scale introduction of GMOs, tests revealed that the cotton in question, variety NB-151, contained the gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that codes for insecticidal proteins, testing positive for Cry 1A(c) gene—indicating that it was transgenic.

However, there are currently no transgenic crops approved in India and the only Bt cotton under consideration for approval by the GEAC is that developed by Monsanto's Indian partner, Maharashtra Hybrid Company (Mahyco). Therefore, citing environmental concerns, the GEAC ordered the “destruction by burning” of the entire illegal cotton crop that was still standing on the field (and compensation of farmers for their loss). GEAC also asked the Gujarat government to collect the cotton lint already harvested from the fields and keep it “under safe custody until further orders.” GEAC member Prasantha Kumar Ghosh says the lint will have to undergo animal feeding trials and allergenicity tests before being released into the market.

Navbharat Seeds, the company behind the illegal variety, insists it is innocent of any wrongdoing. It claims it created the resistant hybrid through normal breeding in which it used as a parental line two plants that seemed healthy in an otherwise bollworm-infested field in Maharashtra. However, GEAC sources say the parental line for NB-151 is identical to that owned by Monsanto and couldn't have arisen naturally and thus is actually the property of Monsanto, which owns the patent.

Monsanto cannot take action against Navbharat Seeds, according to Ranjana Smetacek, Monsanto's director of government & public affairs, because “Monsanto's Bt gene is not patent-protected in India, as so far there is no provision for the patenting of such technology here.” However, GEAC is preparing to sue Navbharat Seeds for developing a Bt hybrid without GEAC approval and marketing it without environmental impact assessment. Government sources allege Navbharat tried to cash in on the Bt gene, “hoping that they would not be noticed.” They say they cannot believe that Navbharat Managing Director DB Desai, who has a doctorate in molecular biology from Mississippi State University, would get himself involved in this. Desai declined to comment.

Channapatna S. Prakash, professor of molecular genetics at Tuskegee University (Tuskegee, AL, USA) and president of AgBioWorld Foundation, speaks for the majority when he says that Navbharat acted illegally. “The company simply stole the Bt gene, marketed a biotech seed without regulation or approval, thus sending a wrong signal on both regulatory and IPR [intellectual property rights] issues,” he says. Prakash adds that the incident could undermine public confidence in the technology [and its regulation], fuel further activist uproar against this technology and seriously harm future investment for the seed industry in India.

Greenpeace genetic engineering campaigner Michelle Chawla points out that “the Gujarat episode has revealed the inability of the Indian regulatory system to control the flow of GM crops.” Indeed, although it didn't apply for transgenic crop approval, Navbharat Seeds did register NB-151, claiming that it gives better yield, matures very early and is tolerant to bollworm damage. But neither the GEAC nor the state government tried to verify at that stage whether the bollworm resistance was due to the Bt gene. However, Ghosh maintains that Navbharat was fully aware the seeds were transgenic and so should have sought formal clearance from the GEAC.

Nevertheless, the overwhelming feeling is that the illegal sale of GM seeds was somewhat inevitable, given India's sluggish regulatory system. Suresh Kotak, president of East India Cotton Association, suggests farmers have been deprived of much-needed access to modern technology for too long; indeed, Monsanto has been trying for six years to have its GM cotton approved (Nat. Biotechnol. 19, 703; 2001). An editorial in the influential daily Hindusaid: “While other countries have adopted a clear-cut and unambiguous attitude toward GM crops, either for or against, India continues to appear confused and uncertain about how to exploit this technology.”

Meanwhile, local farmers are clamoring for Bt cotton. After witnessing NB-151's performance this year (for which they paid two to four times the price for a normal hybrid—apparently without knowing the variety was transgenic), farmers in Gujarat are now paying Navbharat Seeds money in advance for a supply next year. And despite the company's run-in with the law, there is widespread criticism of GEAC's decision to burn the current harvest. “What has happened in Gujarat is unfortunate, but burning the cotton is no solution since Navbharat seeds have already found their way into other states like Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh,” India's agriculture minister Ajit Singh told Indian Express. And the Tribune asked in an editorial, “Why burn the crop worth millions of rupees just to cater to the whims of a few indecisive experts?”

Food and trade policy analyst Devinder Sharma cautions farmers against embracing Bt cotton on the basis of one (illegal) harvest in Gujarat, warning them against future insect resistance. However, Kameswara Rao, president of Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education (Bangalore), says, “There is overwhelming support in the country ... that no time should be lost in legally releasing Btcotton, which will also prevent clandestine releases.”

“Ironically, I am somewhat glad that this happened,” summarizes Prakash: this episode has done much for biotechnology in India by “showing the real value of this technology to the Indian farmers, who have readily embraced it and debunked the myths that they would not pay more for better seeds, or that biotech has no value in the developing world,” he says. “It has also made Indian politicians take notice of this technology for the first time, helped farmers come together to defend and demand this technology and also made the media and politicians take a look at our gutless regulatory system which has kept the legal seeds at bay.”

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Jayaraman, K. Illegal Bt cotton in India haunts regulators. Nat Biotechnol 19, 1090 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt1201-1090

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