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2-Plants: Indian Government freezes support for GE basmati project

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TITLE:  Basmati exporters refuse to Bite
SOURCE: The Economic Times, India
DATE:   Apr 11, 2003

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Basmati exporters refuse to Bite

NEW DELHI: India has introduced a Bt gene in basmati at the ICAR's Delhi-
based National Research Centre for Plant Biotechnology. The idea is to
reduce farmers' costs by making the plant resistant to pests and more
resilient to drought and salinity.

Advanced research in transgenic basmati is also being conducted by the
University of Haryana in collaboration with USA's Cornell University.

But Bt basmati is getting the boot even before its first field trials.
The government is freezing the flourishing research programme on
transgenic basmati after facing stormy protests from private rice exporters.

Transgenic basmati is expected to be resistant to widespread diseases
like pink and white stem borer, mainly found in Punjab and Haryana where
wheat alternates with rice.

The disease is resistant to commonly-used pesticides because the insect
resides inside the rice plant. Transgenic basmati can also successfully
cope with drought and salinity.

But basmati farmers are unlikely to get their hands on this cutting-edge
technology. Alarmed rice exporters have raised a stink as they are afraid
of seeing their overseas earnings take a hit due to uncertain customer

They have already asked the government to stop developing even new
basmati hybrid seeds, as they fetch lower export prices despite being
hugely popular with growers.

"Anything connected with GM is the kiss of death for basmati," said RS
Seshadri, director of United Riceland, the largest exporter of basmati to
Europe, and a member of Basmati Development Fund.

Reluctant to face a controversy over this "politically sensitive"
product, the government has now decided to abandon farmer interests and
drop transgenic basmati like the proverbial hot potato.

Scientists have introduced the Bt gene (already used in maize and cotton)
in popular varieties like Pusa and Karnal Local. Lab trials till now
reveal that with this gene, the stem borer is either unable to penetrate
the basmati plant or dies quickly.

"We have used the Bt gene because it is equally affective against rice
pests and there is already extensive research on it for bio-safety and
toxicity. We find that the gene, after being introduced both through a
natural delivery system and a gene gun, can be fully expressed,
synthesised and mobilised. We are now attempting to add further value by
making the plant resistant to other diseases as well," sources said.

But even if India stops research, transgenic basmati could still become
an off-the-shelf product. Pakistan is learnt to be continuing with its
own R&D programme on GM basmati, in collaboration with the John Innes Lab
in Norwich, UK.

Public opinion in hard-line Europe is also veering towards allowing both
natural and transgenic crops to co-exist. Saudi Arabia, basmati's biggest
market, already allows imported GM foods with mandatory labelling.

Meanwhile, the ICAR will continue to push forward on a new transgenic
non-basmati grain, Bt IR-64, through contained field trials this year.

It is resistant to drought, salinity and pests. ICAR is expecting to get
permission from the department of biotechnology to conduct contained open
field trials later this year. Once a product containing Bt is released
commercially, it is expected to benefit farmers in rain-fed areas and
eastern India.