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2-Plants: Indian expert questions cotton trials

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TITLE:  Expert questions cotton trials
SOURCE: The Hindu, India
DATE:   November 07, 2000

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Expert questions cotton trials

An article published in the latest issue of Current Science has raised 
questions about Monsanto's genetically modified Bollgard cotton and the 
large-scale fields trials which have been permitted. Monsanto's Bollgard 
cotton has been genetically modified to incorporate a gene from the soil 
bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis. Such Bt-cotton produces a protein which 
kills certain insects that feed on the plant, but is not harmful to other 
insects or animals. Consequently, spraying of insecticides, which are 
costly and environmentally harmful, can be greatly reduced. After two years 
of limited field trials, the Department of Environment's Genetic 
Engineering Approval Committee cleared large-scale field trials of the 
Bollgard cotton in July this year.

But Prof. Geeta Bharathan of the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the 
State University of New York, Stony Brook, in her Current Science article, 
has been critical of ``the science, project design and biosafety 
regulations underlying the decision that led to the adoption of the 

The article has pointed out that in 1990, a Department of Biotechnology 
(DBT) committee, headed by Prof. V.L. Chopra, evaluated an application from 
Monsanto for permission to test Bollgard cotton in India. One of the 
grounds on which the application was rejected was that backcrossing an 
American cotton variety with a local one was rife with problems associated 
with traditional plant breeding programmes. The committee felt it would be 
better to introduce the Bt gene directly into the local varieties.

In 1996, the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco) applied for 
permission to import Bollgard cotton seeds and backcross the plants with 
local varieties. ``Apparently this proposal was more acceptable to the 
second DBT committee (of which Chopra was not a member),'' remarks Prof. 
Bharathan. Permission was granted to Mahyco to carry out the experiment.

Since India has the technical expertise to incorporate the appropriate 
genes into local varieties, what is the rationale for approving the 
project? Prof. Bharathan has also raised the issue whether two years of 
backcrossing are sufficient time to evaluate the stability of the new 
varieties to be introduced.

The cotton bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera), a major pest of Indian cotton, 
shows wide variation in its response to the protein produced by the CryIAc 
gene carried by Bollgard cotton. So, resistance could evolve every quickly. 
The armyworm (Spodoptera litura), a pest next in importance to the 
bollworm, is probably even less susceptible. This raises many vital 
questions about the suitability of Bollgard for India. But ``detailed 
results from the two years of field tests are not available'', she has 

There are reports of research in Indian agricultural institutions directed 
towards introducing other Bt genes whose protein products are reportedly 
effective against the bollworm and the armyworm. Why introduce the CrylIAc 
gene into Indian varieties of cotton if it may not be optimal, if 
variability in response of the pest increases the chance of resistance 
evolving, and also enhances the risk of resistance to potentially more 
effective Bt genes?

Dr. Bharathan has also raised questions about the mechanisms in place for 
slowing the development of resistant strains among target pests.

The limited field trials of Bollgard cotton have been carried out on one-
acre plots in some 40 locations during two seasons, she has pointed out. 
But a study of GM crop trials in the U. S. shows that even 100-acre trial 
areas are considered too small for safe extrapolation from field trials to 
large-scale cultivation. Are the limited field trials carried out in India 
adequate to justify approval of large-scale trials?

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