U.S. leading India and Pakistan up the GM garden path (3/8/2005)

India is at a crossroads. At the beginning of this year government scientists at India's premier cotton institute warned that the only approved GM crop in India - Bt cotton - was a potential agricultural time bomb. Their predictions showed Bt-resistance was likely to set in within 3-4 years in India and that Bt-cotton crop failures could begin in some parts of India within the next couple of years. (item 2)

Of course, crop failures with Bt cotton are nothing new and scientists at the same institute have now published a study (item 1) showing that Bt cotton should never have received approval as it is incapable of providing adequate resistance to the bollworm - the very thing it is designed to deliver!

By contrast, the Indian Prime Minister in a recent speech in Washington spoke of how he and President Bush were going to launch a second green revolution. This came in the context of a US deal to support India's nuclear and biotech programmes. See also the third item below from Pakistan about the "India - Pakistan - US science academies collaborative research programme on agricultural biotechnology".

Clearly, the sub-continent's political leadership has succumbed big time to the bad idea virus - the dream that biotech is going to be an economic saviour, or as the article from Pakistan (item 3) puts it, "Biotechnology… is expected to surpass Information Technology as the new engine of the global economy; it is expected to alter healthcare, agriculture, commercial and industrial products." The reality to date, of course, is that biotech has proven a massive money-losing niche industry with, in the case of GMOs, low-to-no consumer acceptance!

But it would be a mistake to think that India's scientific establishment are about to provide the politicians with the wake-up call they so badly need. Far from drawing the obvious lesson that it is time to withdraw from a technology that their own findings are showing to be ineffective and potentially disastrous for farmers, their research results are being spun as showing the need to go still further and faster along the same path in the hope of finding a way out!

Looming and ineffectual Bt resistance is the result of gene monoculture they claim, pointing to a need for stacked genes and a diverse use of genes in GM crops. And, guess what? Here come Monsanto and Syngenta, amongst others, with exactly those kind of products. (item 2)

Seems no one should expect India's political and scientific establishment to stop digging any time soon.

1.Download the new study at:

Temporal and intra-plant variability of Cry1Ac expression in Bt-cotton and its influence on the survival of the cotton bollworm, Helicoverpa

armigera (Hübner) (Noctuidae: Lepidoptera)
K. R. Kranthi, S. Naidu, C. S. Dhawad, A. Tatwawadi, K. Mate, E. Patil, A. A. Bharose, G. T. Behere, R. M. Wadaskar and S. Kranthi
Current Science Vol. 89 No. 2 25 July 2005

2.Indian Bt gene monoculture, potential time bomb
K.S. Jayaraman
Nature Biotechnology, 31 January 2005

Additional reporting by Jeffrey L. Fox in Washington, Hepeng Jia in Beijing and Claudia Orellana in Brecon, UK, for Latin America.

Increasing reliance on a single gene in growing a variety of crops to make them resistant to bollworms could be dangerous, warn experts. Resistance is looming large among Bt crops in India.

In March, this year, an unprecedented number of hybrids of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)-resistant cotton will be planted in India. A recent model simulating the development of insect resistance to Bt cotton predicts that such monoculture could lead to resistance within a few years. The risk of resistance as a consequence of gene monoculture is higher in India where Bt crops are planted illegally than in other countries producing transgenic crops.

Next month 12 new Bt cotton hybrids will enter the Indian market - all carrying the same cry1Ac gene licensed from US seed giant Monsanto. Four of the six Indian companies that have licensed the gene-including Mahyco in Jalna, Raasi Seeds in Attur, Ankur Seeds Limited in Nagpur and Nuzhiveedu Seeds in Hyderabad - will each release three Bt hybrids. Bt cotton carrying cry1Ac to confer resistance against bollworms ( Helicoverpa armigera ) was initially exclusively licensed to Jalna-based Maharashtra Hybrid Company - also known as Mahyco - the Indian partner of Monsanto of St. Louis, Missouri, in 2002 ( Nat. Biotechnol. 20 , 415, 2002).

Keshav Kranthi, a senior scientist at the Central Institute for Cotton Research in Nagpur in the Indian province of Maharashtra and colleagues, warned of the risk of pest resistance to Bt varieties currently used in India in a paper published in the Indian Academy of Science publication (Current Science 87 , 1593-15972004) last December. The authors established a theoretical model to predict resistance development in bollworms due to overuse of the cry1Ac gene. The 'Bt-Adapt model' simulates the bollworm's adaptation to the toxin, depending on the number of generations of the insect exposed to Bt every year and on the number of different Bt crops the insects encounter.

The first estimate is based on two to three generations of insects exposed each year to a single Bt crop. "If the area under Bt cotton gets to 70-80% in a 100-200 kilometer radius, our model estimates resistance development [in] 3-4 years," Kranthi said. "So, it wouldn't be surprising to find Bt -cotton crop failures in some parts of India, starting with [in the province of] Gujarat in a couple of years from now," he adds.

But the Bt-Adapt model can also predict the consequences of exposing bollworms to more than one Bt crop (e.g. cotton and potato). If the number of generations of insects exposed to Bt crops increases to five or six - a likely scenario when another Bt crop is included - the rate of resistance development, according to the model, would be accelerated to half the time it now takes with only Bt cotton.

This scenario is not so unlikely given the increasing reliance on cry1Ac in other crops in India. "Over 42% of the projects in biotechnology research use this Bt gene," says Suman Sahai, convener of Delhi-based Gene Campaign, a nongovernmental organization, and visiting professor of genetics at Hamburg University. "We are going to face a situation when a wide range of crops, from cotton to potato, rice, maize, brinjal [eggplant], tomato, cauliflower, cabbage, even tobacco, carrying the Bt gene will be growing next to each other," warns Sahai.

By contrast, other countries have made limited use of the gene, and have refugia and monitoring strategies. Commercial crops with the cry1Ac gene in the US are limited to cotton and corn, and the gene has been used in research on potatoes. China is using cry1Ac in at least one of the three GM rice crops for which approval has been sought for commercial release (Nat. Biotechnol. 22 , 642, 2004) and in its commercialized cotton, which was individually developed both by Monsanto and by its own scientists. Meanwhile, Argentina, Columbia and Mexico grow the Monsanto Bt cotton commercially and Uruguay and Brazil carry out field trials. Currently, the potential for illegal planting and associated resistance outbreak is the strongest in Brazil.

Though no resistance breakdown has been observed in fields in India yet, "it is important to remain guarded," warns Kottaram Krishnadas Narayanan, managing director of MetaHelix, in Bangalore, a crop biotechnology company. "Genetic uniformity is really dangerous," adds Says Ebrahimali Siddiq, board member of the International Rice Research Institute in Manila, the Philippines. "Resistance can break down any day."

"This kind of a situation is unique to India," explains Kranthi. Until now, a refugia strategy, not strictly implemented and widely undermined by illegal planting of Bt cotton, was the only strategy to avoid resistance in India ( Nat.Biotechnol. 22 , 1333-1334 (2004)). "Unlike the US, non-Bt cotton refuges are not required in India," explains Bruce Tabashnik Professor at the Department of Entomology at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "If all or most of the other crops eaten by Helicoverpa armigera produce cry1Ac and cotton produces cry1Ac, refuge production of susceptibles might not be adequate to stem resistance."

Fears of early resistance development due to gene monoculture is already forcing Monsanto to develop stacked genes thus shifting the focus to other genes. And Syngenta India, in Pune, started to develop cotton with an unrelated type of Bt toxin ( vip3 ). "We need other genes not only to delay resistance but to bring seed price down through competition," concludes Prabhakara Rao managing director of Nuzhiveedu Seeds.

Pakistan, India And US Biotechnology Ties
Business Recorder, Pakistan, 11 Jul 2005 [via AgBios, Canada]

All three countries Pakistan, India and USA are building closer science ties with each other in a range of fields spanning crops biotechnology to overcome its agriculture issues. Pakistan stands to gain tremendously from the tripartite planning meeting on agricultural biotechnology held at Lahore at the end of May 2005.

It will be our first "umbrella agreement" on biotech science with any country in the region. This will serve as an oversight panel for the tripartite collaborative project on pro-poor and pro-nature agricultural biotechnology.

The following decisions were taken in the first meeting.

The collaborative research programme will be titled "India - Pakistan - US science academies collaborative research programme on agricultural biotechnology"

The initial duration of the collaborative research programme will be of 5 years, beginning from 1 January, 2006


a. Breeding crops for tolerance/ resistance to abiotic stresses, with particular reference to drought and salinity

b. Risk and safety assessment

c. Human resource development in advanced technologies with particular reference to techniques relevant to the collaborative research programme

d. Technology sharing in areas of mutual benefit

The project proposal will contain a budget, indicating the funds needed for common and differentiated research responsibilities under the collaborators framework.

The project preparation team will finalise a detailed project proposal by

the end of August 2005.

Each academy will seek funds from appropriate local funding agencies for

meeting the expenses of the work to be carried out in the respective countries.

The three academies approach international donor agencies for meeting expenses connected with common activities like capacity building, technology sharing and meetings of the oversight panel and steering committee.

The fund raising strategy will be finalised at the meeting of the Steering Committee to be held at National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS), New Delhi, in September 2005.

The Governor Punjab General Khalid Maqbool pledged full support to this initiative. He expressed interest in organising a women's biotechnology park near Lahore, on the lines of the women's biotechnology park in Chennai.

It is worth knowing that water logging and salinity are causing the abandonment of irrigated croplands in Pakistan, India, Iraq and Egypt. Pakistan had already made a good beginning in evolution of some species of trees, fodder and crops having economic worth through application of nuclear and molecular techniques, which are resistant to salinity like Acacia, Kallar grass, Sporobolus, Salicornia, and Jojoba.

Through the use of modern technology, already 25,000 acres of saline lands in the country were being put to use through Farmers Participatory Programme under a central government project worth Rs 178 million.

Dr Khalid J Chowdhry, President, Federation of Asian Biotech Associations, (FABA), Pakistan, said that NAAS will help to organise a get-together between Pakistan and Indian leaders in biotechnology business enterprises in pharmaceutical, medical and agricultural biotechnology.

The aim will be to promote joint enterprises in Pakistan and India.

India's renowned agricultural scientist, M S Swaminathan said that combination of biotechnology with conventional system of crop improvement is imperative to give a quantum jump to the farm production in this part of the world; he added biotechnology was not against the concept of organic farming, where crops could be grown naturally without the use of chemicals.

A tripartite group of senior scientists from the US, India and Pakistan has been working on agricultural biotechnology to formulate a collaborative strategy to fight against salinity, drought and other related problems. Biotechnology, which is expected to surpass Information Technology as the new engine of the global economy; it is expected to alter healthcare, agriculture, commercial and industrial products.

Global success for Pakistani biotechnology will largely depend on creating the lowest cost base for innovation.

It is therefore imperative to evolve fiscal and regulatory policies that support capital-intensive research and manufacturing, long gestation time for product commercialisation and investments in patenting and technology licensing and close collaboration between biotech player institutes and countries.

It is worthy to note that there is no national biotech policy; in April 2005 Government of Pakistan approved its Biosafety Rules and Pakistan Atomic energy Commission (PAEC) has provided 40,000.00 Kg basic seed of transgenic cotton varieties "IR-FH-901", "IR-NIBGE-2", "IR-CIM-448" and "IR-CIM-443" to few seed companies for its multiplication and sale; these companies were tightly screened and evaluated by PAEC on the bases of their capacity to follow biosafety rules.

Go to a Print friendly Page

Email this Article to a Friend

Back to the Archive