Bt cotton fiasco & heaps of shame

The disgraceful conduct of public sector scientists in faking an indigenous Bt cotton variety based on one of India’s more successful cotton variety Bikaneri Narma once again brings heaps of shame to the Indian scientific community. Scientists at Dharwad University and the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), Nagpur, said they had developed a fully indigenous cotton variety independent of the Monsanto line of Bt cottons. As it turns out, nothing of the kind had been done. The scientists had simply backcrossed Bikaneri Narma with a Monsanto hybrid and claimed the results to be their novel indigenous variety. Scientists associated with the regulatory system were aware some time ago of the fraud that had been perpetrated but did not act on it. It was the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) that finally acted by withdrawing the so-called “indigenous” variety and stopped its commercial sale.
It was Monsanto that actually uncovered the fraud and informed the regulators of the misdeeds of the Dharwad and Nagpur scientists. It was said that the multinational (Monsanto) threatened to take the Government of India to court for unauthorised use of their proprietary material but were held back by corporate colleagues who advised against such an extreme step since that could antagonise the government with whom they expect to do lots of business in future.
All the Bt cottons released in India, some 360 plus now, are from the private sector and they are all hybrids. There is not a single Bt cotton from the public sector labs to reach the market. The pressure to create a variety rather than a hybrid, so that farmers can save seed for the next planting (which they cannot with a hybrid seed), came from actions and demands made by the Gene Campaign in 2004-05. The Gene Campaign had then issued a notice to the ministry of environment and forests to file a complaint under Section 19 (b) for commission of offences under the Environment Protection Act and the rules framed under it, to regulate genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The issues were the indiscriminate granting of approvals to Bt cottons without examining their performance and asking why all the Bt cottons approved by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) were hybrids.
In addition, the Gene Campaign had petitioned the National Commission on Farmers to make a policy recommendation that Bt cotton must be permitted in India only in the form of true breeding varieties as is the case in China, Australia and South Africa, not as hybrids the way the industry is pushing here. It had sent in a submission to this effect directly to the GEAC as well. The result of a campaign for varieties against hybrids of Bt cotton has ended in the fiasco of the fake Bt cotton variety which had not only used unauthorised genetic material but the performance of which was also poor. The question that has come up repeatedly in the past few years must be posed again: Is our public sector capable of doing transgenic research? Does it have the capacity to produce products of an acceptable standard?
The Bikaneri Narma Bt cotton story is not the first fiasco of public sector research in GMOs. Some years ago, a team of regulators burnt down the field trials of Bt brinjal being conducted in the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) because the scientists there had violated all the major provisions prescribed by the GEAC, to conduct field trials of a GMO. There was, among other things, no physical containment or isolation of the GMO trial plots.
The last time our biotechnology enthusiasts had covered themselves with glory was in the Bt brinjal case when stalwarts of the six science academies of the country had put together a cut and paste document with material plagiarised from promotional material brought out in support of GM technology and Bt crops. This intellectual bankruptcy was the response of the scientists to the Planning Commission and ministry of environment and forest, who asked for a status report that would flag the lacunae in biosafety testing, to move ahead with the Bt brinjal tangle.
As things stand, there seems to be little justification for the millions that the department of biotechnology is pouring into poor quality, misdirected research which appears incapable of addressing the real needs of real farmers in this country. India has a hugely ambitious public sector programme in the field of agro biotechnology. It seeks to convert almost all categories of food plants into transgenics. So we have in the pipeline GM cabbage, cauliflower, rice, wheat, melons, tomato, banana, mustard, coffee, brinjal, okra, groundnuts, potato, cotton, even medicinal plants like Brahmi and Withania somnifera! No other country in the world is trying to convert practically its entire crop repertoire into GMOs. Alarmingly, those dabbling in such reckless pursuits are constrained neither by regulatory policy nor competence.

The writer, a genetic scientist who has served on the faculty of the Universities of Chicago and Heidelberg, is
convenor of the Gene Campaign

Comments

I agree with the writer that

I agree with the writer that developing countries needs varieties not hybrids to sustain the majority of farmers that do subsistence farming and cannot afford huge cost of hybrid seeds. In Pakistan just a single hybrid in cotton has been approved for commercial cultivation, rest all are varieties. Majority of farmers love to save their own seed for the next crop, and the agriculture department has provided seed grader at the local level so that farmers can bring their own seed before sowing and get that clean and graded in wheat crop. This practice of capacity building helps farmers in reducing their cost of production down. Research is always a challenging task, and may not get desirable results in prescribed time frame, for that blaming scientists is not fair. Dr. Khalid Abdullah, Islamabad, Pakistan

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