Fresh doubts over GM cotton in India (25/8/2005)

excerpt: "India desperately needs not just an independent but a transparent regulatory framework for GM crops."

Fresh doubts over GM cotton in India
Govt-sponsored research has found genetically modified Bt cotton is still vulnerable to bollworm attack
Bangkok Post, 25 August 2005

New Delhi - Cotton farmers in India appear to be in a state of confusion. Scores of them in the southern states who adopted the much-touted genetically modified cotton varieties three years ago are seeing pests return to their farms. Companies selling these seeds are being made to pay compensation to farmers for crop losses.

On the other hand, the very same GM seeds have been permitted for use in cotton belts of north India.

And on top of this brouhaha, a government-sponsored research study has found that genetically engineered Bt cotton varieties released in India are not fully effective. In fact, the research finding has provided fresh ammunition to anti-GM lobbies just when they were getting the feeling that they are fighting a losing battle.

The study only proves what these groups have been contending all along. The study done at the Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR), has found that Bt varieties are not able to provide full protection against bollworm pest attacks in Indian fields.

Specifically, it has been found that the expression of Cry1Ac toxin is the lowest in the ovary of flowers and boll rind of green bolls - the most favoured sites of bollworm attack. In addition, Cry1Ac expression declined consistently as the plant aged, falling below critical levels after 110 days of sowing.

The commercial Bt cotton hybrids in India express less than the critical levels of Cry1Ac required for full protection against bollworms late in the season and also in some plant parts, such as boll rind, square bract, bud and flower, which are the main feeding sites of bollworm larvae, the study concluded.

"The data available support the presumption that Bt cotton hybrids in India may require more supplemental insecticide sprays than being used on Bt cotton varieties elsewhere in the world," the CICR report said.

The concern over new cotton varieties is understandable, given the fact that India has the largest area under cotton production globally. India is the third largest producer of cotton, after China and the US, but productivity has been low due to pest attacks.

In order to boost yields by arresting pest attacks, the government in 2002 decided to allow GM cotton varieties which companies claimed could withstand pests. Since then the area under Bt cotton cultivation has grown to 3.3 million acres in nine states, out of a total 22 million acres under cotton production. Several illegal GM varieties too have appeared in the market and farmers are using them even in states where GM cotton has not been released officially.

Environmental groups have been opposing Bt cotton on grounds that it does not provide protection to crops and is unsuitable for Indian conditions.

''The CICR research vindicates our stand that performance of Bt cotton is extremely uneven across varieties, seasons and locations,'' said Dr Ramanjaneyulu, executive director of the Hyderabad-based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.

Inadequate expression of Bt toxin in different varieties, at different stages of the crop and in different parts of the crop, he said, indicates that ''scientists have no control over the toxin expression and that the technology of genetic modification is imprecise and unpredictable''.

The current episode has also exposed holes in the regulatory and approval procedures for GM crops. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), a panel in the environment ministry, is supposed to approve new GM crops based on field data and other scientific evidence as well as act as a regulator once approvals are granted.

It appears that this panel approved new varieties even after CICR findings raised doubts over varieties released earlier. Though the study was published in July 2005, it relates to harvests in 2002-03.

''This is both deliberate suppression of information and a failure of regulation,'' said Dr Suman Sahai, president of New Delhi-based Gene Campaign. ''The CICR being an institute of the Indian Council of Agriculture Research, the data should have been available with GEAC as soon as CICR had them, given the controversial nature of the subject and the goals of the study.''

The group has served a legal notice to the environment ministry seeking action against GEAC for approving faulty GM varieties.

When contacted to comment on the research findings, a Monsanto company spokesperson said: ''We have been very clear about benefits and limitations of Bollgard cotton. Bollgard provides significant protection from damaging caterpillar pests, but it is not a panacea. Farmers are directed to scout their Bollgard fields for insects and damage.

''Under heavy insect pressure or insect damage, they should supplement the protection provided by Bollgard by treating with an insecticide. We know and tell growers that this situation most frequently occurs later in the season.''

At the same time, the company said ''the ever increasing Bollgard plantings demonstrate that the Indian farmer is willing to adopt a technology that delivers consistent benefits in terms of reduced pesticide use and increased income''.

The spokesperson also said that Monsanto does not market cotton seeds containing the Cry1AC gene in Thailand.

The spread of illegal GM cotton varieties and non-compliance of conditions like ''refuge area'' in every farm using GM seeds also point to problems with the existing regulatory system for GM crops.

A government panel last year had suggested setting up an independent regulatory mechanism for approvals relating to agriculture biotechnology and pharmaceutical biotech products. But the government has yet to act in that direction. India desperately needs not just an independent but a transparent regulatory framework for GM crops.

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