INDIA: Government Defends Genetic Plant Trials
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- Date: Wed, 30 Dec 1998 03:46:27 -0800 (PST)
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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
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,''
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)
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