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The Irony of Illegal Bt Cotton

The Hindu (India)
By C. S. Prakash
November 07, 2001

The issue of illegal Bt cotton making headlines in the Indian media provides some valuable lessons. It shows that many of our farmers would readily employ 'improved' varieties of crops when given a choice, and that biotechnology clearly offers solutions to certain agricultural problems. Ironically, it also exposes the consequences of regulatory foot-dragging that sadly spawned this proliferation of 'unapproved' seeds.

The overall safety of using Bt genes to control pests with genetically-enhanced plants is not in question here as millions of acres of Bt crops are being grown worldwide without any problem to health or the environment.

For the last six years, the Indian seed company Mahyco has been testing insect-resistant Bt cotton while following the strict regulatory protocols. It spent a great deal of money in research, development and testing, waited patiently for six years, and endured much media and activist attention.

As part of the approvals process, the company has conducted over 100 field trials with Bt cotton in different agro- climatic zones, and has done extensive nutritional and bio-safety studies under the directives issued by different regulatory authorities, and in close cooperation with many national scientific institutions.

Imagine its bewilderment at being usurped by a little known company that, going by media reports, has been clandestinely selling unapproved Bt cotton seeds to farmers in three States for the last three years.

It has marketed the seeds under the guise of 'hybrid' seeds, claiming that their bollworm-tolerance trait was not from the use of Bt technology but through traditional plant breeding methods. Laboratory tests have conclusively established that these seeds were indeed transgenic.

Understandably, the seeds have proved very popular among cotton farmers who have been suffering the havoc caused by the bollworm for almost a decade. They regard the seeds a godsend and are ready to take on any Government authority that wants to torch their bountiful crop. Paradoxically enough, this unforeseen development is indicative of how the tide has turned in favour of biotechnology in India and debunks the myths that Indian farmers are not willing to embrace this technology or pay more for improved seeds.

It is also illustrative of the sluggish regulatory system and the lax enforcement of existing rules. This has also happened in Brazil. In a world where farmers have access to the latest information via television and Internet, they have shown themselves willing to adopt new technologies - no matter who sells it or where it comes from - to tackle old challenges. Governments have a valuable lesson to learn from this - they must reform the regulatory process to eliminate unnecessary delays and trim the red tape. It is inevitable that when farmers do not have access to new technologies via approved routes, we risk unscrupulous firms sneaking them in

Crop biotechnology is a new cutting-edge technology that farmers in several countries around the world are enthusiastically adopting, but under the watchful eye of scientists and regulatory authorities. Since 1990, more than 50 genetically-improved plants have been given approval in 15 countries on six continents. In all these countries, stringent rules on plant varieties are in place.

It is because of such compliance with regulatory protocols that confidence in the safe use of the new crops has grown rapidly round the world. As a report issued last month by the European Commission, executive branch of the European Union, pointed out, "Research on GM (genetically-modified) plants and derived products so far developed and marketed, following usual risk assessment procedures, has not shown any new risks to human health or the environment, beyond the usual uncertainties of conventional plant breeding. Indeed, the use of more precise technology and greater regulatory scrutiny probably make them even safer than conventional plants and foods".

The Commission went on to add that no unforeseen environmental effects have yet shown up, but even if they do, "these should be rapidly detected by existing monitoring systems."

It is these monitoring systems, on which public confidence in the safety of crop biotechnology depends, which have been undermined in Gujarat. The risks are enormous for the whole of India's fledging biotechnology industry, both in medicine and agriculture.

This is not about patent rights or intellectual property issues but it is about the appropriate use and credible monitoring of this new technology, along with safeguarding the global interests of India's biotechnology industry.

One false step by a seed company without the scientific standing needed to build public confidence in the system can set back the development of this new science for decades. It can destroy the foundations of the edifice of regulatory measures so painstakingly and labouriously built over the years by the Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee in the Union Ministry of Environment, the Department of Biotechnology of the Union Ministry of Science and Technology, and other leading Indian scientific institutions.

Biotechnology will be the locomotive of growth in coming decades and the Government of India just cannot afford to take chances. It must deal uncompromisingly with the offending company, regardless of its political connections, under the existing provisions of the Environment Protection Act of 1986.

While the company must be held accountable for its acts of commission and omission, the Government also has a responsibility to ensure that all seeds it has released in the market, including those saved by farmers from the crops of the last three years, are destroyed.

The illegal Bt cotton incident has ramifications for the development of biotechnology in India. It may have implications also on the investment and development of a whole range of new technologies, including medical biotechnologies. Lack of faith in the Indian regulatory system also engenders a grave risk that exports of Indian products using these new technologies could be banned and new non-tariff barriers created. India needs a sound, comprehensive regulatory system, but one that is also time- efficient in line with other countries. India just cannot afford to let the slogan of "IT Today, BT Tomorrow" be destroyed by an irresponsible act of one company.

The writer is Professor of Plant Molecular Genetics, Tuskegee University, Alabama, U.S. He also serves on the special advisory committee of the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India.