GENTECH archive


INDIA: Government Defends Genetic Plant Trials

          AGRICULTURE-INDIA: Government Defends Genetic Plant Trials
    By Keya Acharya
   BANGALORE, India, Dec 27 - The Indian government has rushed to the
   defence of the transnational corporation Monsanto - which is under
   fire from prtesting farmers' over the trial planting of
   genetically-modified cotton. 
   At a seminar on transgenic crop technology held in this southern
   metropolis last week, federal government officials and scientists
   explained their stand on the disputed trials in two southern states.
   Byre Gowda, the Agriculture Minister of southern Karnataka state where
   a large part of the experiments are being carried out, denied that
   these involve the controversial 'terminator' techonology which makes
   seeds sterlie after one harvest.
   Manju Sharma, the top official in the Indian government's Department
   of Biotechnology (DBT) said the department is ''strictly monitoring''
   the transgenic seed research. The trials are backed by a ''built-in
   level of mechanical checks to prevent import of unwanted materials,''
   he said.
   P.K. Ghosh, Adviser to the DBT and member of the department's
   Reviewing Committee on Genetic Manipulation, cited figures from field
   experiments to dispel fears that transgenic seed trials of the kind
   being undertaken by Monsanto involve health hazards.
   Monsanto is testing a new cotton seed with in-built resistance to
   pests. This involves incorporating genes of the soil bacteria known as
   Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). The seed company has patented the gene as
   Bollgard which poisons the cotton devastating bollworm pest.
   The company argues that the trials will benefit tens of thousands of
   cotton farmers in the country and are specially relevant at a time
   when a large part of India's cotton crop was damaged by pests
   triggering a spate of suicides by farmers in southern India.
   Cotton is tilled on an estimated nine million hectares in India, the
   largest area worldwide, which contributes to nearly a third of global
   production. The average Indian cotton farm produces 330 kg per hectare
   compared to the world average yield of 552 kg per hectare.
   Cotton farmers are the heaviest users of chemical pest killers in the
   country. In Karnataka, although the crop takes up a bare five percent
   of the cultivated area, it accounts for more than half of all
   pesticide used on farms in the state.
   However, farmers' groups, led by the Karnataka State Farmers'
   Association, claim that the new seed technology will do more harm than
   good to farmers and their fields. They fear the anti-pest gene in the
   Monsanto cotton can also kill beneficial micro- organisms in the soil.
   Monsanto's opponents claim the company is using the trials as a cover
   to perfect terminator seed techonology which will force farmers to buy
   seeds from the company. Monsanto has denied that the tests involve the
   terminator gene and disputed the charge that its Bollgard cotton seed
   will be productive for just one season.
   The transnational insists that it has abided by the Indian
   government's rules in conducting the field trials.
   Spearheading the anti-Monsanto campaign is M.D. Nanjundaswamy,
   firebrand leader of the Karnataka Farmers' Association, known for his
   aggressive opposition to transnational agribusiness. The Association
   has filed a criminal suit against Monsanto, charging the company with
   violating official rules in its field trials.
   Activists recently torched some Monsanto experimental farms during
   demonstrations against the company.
   Nanjundaswamy is not impressed by either Monsanto's or the Indian
   government's stand on the trials. He claims that official permission
   for the trials was given by the DBT on July 27, five weeks after
   Monsanto had sown the plants. He also accuses Monsanto of not
   observing the stipulated norms for sowing.
   The controversy over the Monsanto trials has aroused passions in the
   Indian Parliament and given rise to heated debate among agricultural
   scientists. The government of Andhra Pradesh state where the trials
   were also being carried out, has since ordered a halt following an
   uproar in the state legislature.
   According to G. Padmanabhan, former Director of the prestigious
   Bangalore-based Indian Institute of Science, while terminator
   technology is unsuitable for India, transgenic seeds can be beneficial
   for Indian farmers.
   However, Padmanabhan thinks that such research should be carried out
   jointly by government and private business to protect the interests of
   farmers. ''We don't have the money to do this on our own,'' he
   Apprehension over genetically-modified plant research also is
   heightened by the absence of a biosafety law in the country. A
   proposed Plant Varieties Protection enactment is under fire from
   activist groups who say it will benefit agribusiness and companies
   like Monsanto. (END/IPS/ka/mu/98)

** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material
is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest
in receiving the included information for research and educational
purposes. **