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2-Plants: GM Cotton - To Kill or Not To Kill

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TITLE:  India: GM Cotton - To Kill or Not To Kill
SOURCE: Business Line, India, by Vinod Mathew
DATE:   November 1, 2001

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  Nobody in the State - the cotton growers, the authorities or the myriad
  hybrid seed manufacturers - is willing to buy the argument that an MNC
  such as Monsanto, the sole supplier of the Bt cotton seed worldover, could
  have been fooled by the Ahmedabad-based Navbharat Seeds Pvt Ltd for two
  full seasons - 1999-2000 and 2000-01.

India: GM Cotton - To Kill or Not To Kill

The cotton growers of Gujarat may be excused if they feel caught in the 
freeze frame of a surrealistic movie that has suddenly taken a sinister 
turn. As the events that unfolded for them the last fortnight had all the 
makings of a bizarre script, many of them who have already sent their 
suspect cotton for ginning feel they are in the Theatre of the Absurd.

For three seasons now, they had been urged by all and sundry to try out the 
costly Navbharat 151 cotton seed and it was the first year that the 
veracity of the company's claim on being bollworm- resistant could be 
checked out. Then, the whole pack of cards came tumbling down as some new 
ingredients called genetically modified (GM), transgenic and Bacillus 
thuringiensis (Bt) began to get mixed with what they thought was their own 
crop. Now, the harvest may become too hot for them to handle. Not quite, if 
the current thinking in the State Government is anything to go by. The 
State Agriculture Minister, Mr Purshottam Rupala, has already set the tone 
and tenor of action to follow by saying that a "thorough" survey would be 
done before the Central Government's directive to destroy the transgenic 
crop would be complied with.

In fact, he went one step further and said there was nothing wrong with 
using the GM cotton seed and that the entire issue was the handiwork of a 
pesticide manufacturer's lobby. He found an ardent supporter in the Union 
Textile Minister, Mr Kashiram Rana, who after consulting the State 
government, ruled out the possibility of destroying the cotton grown from 
transgenic seeds.

Clearly, the cotton growers of the State cannot be blamed if they feel 
slightly confused on the official line of the State and Central Government 
on the controversial harvest. With a couple of pickings of the early 
maturing GM cotton crop already over and the rest slated to be completed by 
mid-November, much of the debated cotton may no longer be physically 
present by the time the authorities take any decision. The pace at which 
the State government is going about researching the whereabouts of GM 
cultivation, nothing substantial in the nature of cotton either to uproot 
or destroy may be available by the time an actual order to destroy the crop 
comes through. It naturally follows that nobody needs to overly worry about 
any compensation to the farmers.

This year's cotton cultivation began around June 15 that means the entire 
GM cotton harvest is expected to be through in 150 days, by November 15. 
The GM cotton crop of Gujarat, conservatively estimated by various State 
government bodies such as the Gujarat State Co- operative Cotton Federation 
and the Krushi Bhavan, at a minimum of 10,000 acres and valued at anything 
over Rs 150 crore, may suddenly become hard to find. In fact, farm sector 
analysts say it would become as hard to find as the proverbial needle in 
the haystack as the second and third generation GM crop gets mixed with the 
traditional Shankar 6 as also a clutch of home-grown hybrid varieties.

It took an epidemic of bollworm to affect Gujarat's cotton crop this season 
for the whistle to be blown on an open transgression of the country's 
genetic engineering law. The practice may still have continued but for a 
favourable monsoon that set the hopes of the cotton cultivators soaring 
only to be shattered by the bollworm infestation.

The State Agriculture Directorate, which had initially estimated this 
year's cotton crop at 45 lakh bales, has since the onset of the bollworm 
infestation settled for 33 lakh bales. Only marginally higher than 27 lakh 
bales in a drought-hit season last year, the was the one crucial issue that 
segregated the users of regular seeds from those using the Bt variety. 
Pertinently, questions are being raised in the State's farm lobby why the 
use of the genetically modified (GM) cotton crop has come to light only 
three years after the transgenic seed first became available. The State's 
cotton growers - right from the arid expanses of the Kutch district to the 
fertile Narmada valley basin of Bharuch - are a confused lot today as 
Navbharat 151, the seed found to contain the Bt. strain, was registered 
with the State Agriculture Department as early as 1998.

Nobody in the State - the cotton growers, the authorities or the myriad 
hybrid seed manufacturers - is willing to buy the argument that an MNC such 
as Monsanto, the sole supplier of the Bt cotton seed worldover, could have 
been fooled by the Ahmedabad-based Navbharat Seeds Pvt Ltd for two full 
seasons - 1999-2000 and 2000-01.

The Gujarat State Seeds Producers Association (GSSPA) members first brought 
the issue to the notice of the Central Agriculture Minister and 33 other 
officers across the country on October 5. Ironically, the Navbharat Seeds 
Pvt Ltd managing director, Mr D. B. Desai, is the chairman of the 22-member 
GSSPA whose other 21 members were signatories to the complaint on the use 
of transgenic cotton seed in Gujarat, the sole direct source having been 
the company floated by the association chairman.

The memorandum had pointed out that up to 10,000 packets of Navbharat 151 
seeds being sold this season (one packet of 450 gm can cultivate 1-1.5 
acres). Further, it was brought to the notice of the authorities that large 
tracts were used for open pollination of the GM seeds collected by farmers 
from the previous crop with an eye on using it as seeds for the ensuing 
season. It is now anybody's guess as to how much land in Gujarat has 
actually come under GM cotton cultivation, if the second and third 
generation usage were to be accounted.

"The published literature by the various distributors of Navbharat 151 for 
the past couple of years was too blatant to have had the MNC caught 
napping, especially when they had an Indian partner in Maharashtra Hybrid 
Seeds Co (Mahyco). Apparently, it did not suit the MNC to have too much 
attention focussed on Bt cotton at a time when it was hoping for a 
favourable legislation allowing it legal entry into India. With the wide 
range of Bt variants under their umbrella, somebody like Navbharat could 
only have been a minor irritant," says Dr Manish Patel, a seed technologist 
and consultant to Incotec of the Netherlands.

What is published by the distributors of Navbharat 151 in various parts of 
Gujarat are a number of performance indicators. These include: - 
revolutionary hybrid seed from Navbharat Seeds Pvt Ltd that ensures 
immunity from bollworm; - yield potential of 22 quintals/acre; - short 
maturity period of 140-150 days, thus allowing farmer to go in for another 
winter crop and also escape the white fly attack; - Successful in both 
irrigated and rainfed areas.

According to Mr A. M. Patel, a director of GSSPA and an original 
signatories to the October 5 complaint that led to the avalanche of events 
on the GM cotton front, "We had suspicions the last couple of years about 
the claims made by Navbharat 151. This year, when as much as 70 per cent of 
cotton cultivation from regular hybrid seeds were hit, the Navbharat strain 
alone stood strong against the bollworm attack."

"Also, as was pointed out in our October 5 plaint, the Central Institute of 
Cotton Research, Coimbatore, carried out tests on 49 hybrid seeds at 35 
locations, six of these in Gujarat. While all other entrants were highly 
damaged by bollworm, only hybrid (code 223) was found to be bollworm 
resistant. Navbharat Seeds had made one entry (NBHH-3016) and it appears 
that the bollworm resistant entry morphologically resembles Navbharat-151," 
Mr Patel adds.

Earlier, the Union Minister for Environment and Forests, Mr T. R. Baalu, 
had said in the Rajya Sabha on August 10 that the Genetic Engineering 
Approval Committee (GEAC) observed the data generated on large-scale field 
trials on Bt cotton undertaken by Mahyco could not reflect the true values 
because of late sowing. The trials were to be repeated this year with the 
ICAR directly supervising the proceeding under the Advanced Varietal Trials 
of the All-India Co-ordinated Cotton Improvement project.

Mahyco is conducting further field trials on about 100 hectares this season 
but the unsavoury developments in Gujarat may further put the clock back it 
is feared. Dr Manju Sharma, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, 
apparently told the media recently that things were moving fast and a 
decision on Bt cotton could be expected in March 2002. The Gujarat episode 
may not make things too easy for the proponents of Bt cotton as the green 
lobby is already up in arms citing Navbharat-like instances as reason 
enough for India to tread warily in the transgenic zone.


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