Sowing the seeds of destruction

Here is yet another Mahyco-Monsanto tale, one of defiance and breaking the law even as the scientific community looks on. Monsanto is the world’s largest investor in seed and biotechnology research investing $1 billion/`5,000 crores and is also the leading producer of genetically engineered (GE) seed. It provides the technology in 90 per cent of the world’s genetically engineered seeds.

The Mahyco seed company had approached the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) in its meeting on January 12, 2011 for permission to produce seed of genetically engineered cotton containing a herbicide tolerant gene. This non-Bt cotton was not proposed to be released as a herbicide tolerant (HT) crop but to be used as the refuge crop for when BG II RR Flex cotton is finally approved for cultivation. Currently it is in trials. BG II RR Flex refers to Bollgard II, a cotton hybrid that carries two Bt genes as well as a gene conferring tolerance to Roundup Ready, which is a herbicide. This double Bt, single HT cotton is a stacked cotton hybrid, which is piling on Bt genes to stay ahead of the bollworms that are fast catching up and becoming resistant to the Bt toxin inside the plant, which is meant to kill them.
Mahyco had already applied to GEAC in September 2010 to produce the same seed and had been turned down on the grounds that the hybrid had not cleared the regulatory process and did not have permission for environmental release. Therefore, according to the Rules of 1989, which govern biotechnology, Mahyco could not be given permission to produce seed of the unapproved cotton. But did Mahyco accept the GEAC ruling and desist from using the unapproved HT cotton seed? No it did not.
It went ahead, cocking a snook at GEAC, made seed of the unapproved non-Bt RR Flex cotton and is using it to plant the refuge crop in the trials of its double Bt, single HT cotton hybrid BG II RR Flex. A 20 per cent “refuge crop” of non-Bt cotton is required by the law, to be planted along with Bt cotton so that the invading bollworm has a non-toxic cotton to feed on, to delay the build up of resistance to the toxic Bt cotton. The Mahyco Company is merrily carrying on using the unapproved cotton as the refuge planting in the trials of its new double Bt, single HT cotton hybrid even after GEAC had denied it permission to do this.
So why is Mahyco breaking the law to plant (the unapproved) herbicide tolerant cotton as the refuge for its double Bt, single HT cotton hybrid? Because it slyly admits what we have been pointing out all along, that planting a herbicide tolerant crop, like the new Bt-HT cotton, and using the matched herbicide (Roundup Ready) during its cultivation will destroy all the neighbouring crops and the adjoining biodiversity. This will happen when Roundup Ready lands on them when fields of the HT crops are being sprayed. Only plants carrying the HT gene can survive the herbicide spray. Since the other crops and the surrounding biodiversity do not contain the HT gene, they will die when the Roundup Ready hits them.
HT crops can only be cultivated if all the other crops in the region are also HT (which is an impossibility), otherwise they will be destroyed when they catch the Roundup Ready spray drifting in the wind or if they get sprayed inadvertently. In several articles and submissions I have made to policy bodies, this is why I have argued that the herbicide-tolerant genetic trait must not be permitted for use in India. First because it will displace agriculture labour (weeding provides wage labour), second because it will destroy all the surrounding biodiversity that rural communities use as food, fodder, medicinal plants etc. and third because of what Mahyco-Monsanto now themselves admit, that Roundup Ready sprays will destroy all the other non-HT crops in the neighbourhood.
The Director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) in Nagpur acknowledges the problem with HT crops, saying that the refuge for the Bt-HT cotton must be planted with HT cotton during commercial cultivation. Otherwise the refuge will be killed by Roundup Ready spray drifts. According to the minutes of the 106th GEAC meeting of January 12, 2011, the CICR director’s views are recorded as follows: “If the Refugia in BG II RR Flex comprise only of non-Bt cotton without RR-Flex (HT trait), there is every likely possibility of the refugia patch getting destroyed due to spray drift or inadvertent application of ‘Round-up’ on the ‘non-RR-Flex-non-Bt-cotton’”. So the scientists admit there is a problem with the implementation of HT crops in real life. The CICR director, however, does not propose a strategy for how other crops and biodiversity should be protected when Mahyco’s new Bt-HT cotton is planted commercially and Roundup Ready is widely used in the fields.
Because Mahyco has blatantly defied the directions of the GEAC not to produce HT cotton seed until it gets regulatory approval, the regulators have decided to issue a showcause notice to the company, seeking explanation on why penal action should not be initiated against it under the Environmental Protection Act (EPA), for violations of the Rules of 1989. The Rules of 1989 are framed under the EPA that is the umbrella legislation.
It will be interesting to see how this story unfolds. Will the GEAC really follow through and take action against Mahyco for its defiant stand and blatant violations? Or will Mahyco walk home free as it has done in the past? It is openly mentioned that the Mahyco-Monsanto gang are used to getting their way with regulatory agencies like the GEAC. Do they indeed get away with things? The grapevine is full of gossip and names are mentioned openly. This situation is untenable for a society that lays claim to scientific achievement. After the disgraceful performance of the scientific community in the Bt brinjal case, let them redeem their reputation and tighten up the regulation of genetically modified crops so that it is rescued from being the farce that it is today.

Dr Suman Sahai, a genetic scientist who has served on the faculty of the Universities of Chicago and Heidelberg, is convenor of the Gene Campaign

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