Today in AgBioView: March 26, 2002
* Indian Farmers Enter Era of Biotechnology
* Bt Cotton Clearance Divides Experts
* Govt Clears Bt Cotton for Commercial Use
* GEAC'S Approval of Bt Cotton: A Shot In The Arm For The Biotech Sector
* Bt Cotton Should Be Formally Approved: Interview/C. S. Prakash
* Behind All The Fluff: Clearing the Air on Bt Cotton in India
* India's War on Vegetables
* GEAC Approval To Commercialise Bt Cotton Crucial: CII
Indian Farmers Enter Era of Biotechnology
- Kisan Coordination Committee ( an Indian farmers organization),
March 26 2002
The Kisan Coordination Committee (KCC) - and umbrella organisation of
all non-political farmers organisations - welcomes the decision of
the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) in clearing the
commercialisation of Bt Cotton. "It's a major step in ensuring
farmers freedom of access to technology," said Shetkari Sanghathan
leader Sharad Joshi, reacting to initial reports about the GEAC
decision. However, the KCC held back a more detailed response till it
read the full text of the GEAC approval and vetted the fine print.
The GEAC decision had been keenly awaited by members of the KCC and
cotton farmers. Reeling under virulent bollworm attacks which had
destroyed a majority of the cotton crop, the farmers had chafing at
the delay in approving commercialisation of Bt Cotton seed.
The debate over Bt Cotton had been raging since 1998 when field
trials began to be conducted by a private firm under the supervision
of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the
Department of Biotechnology. However, even after three years of
trials, the GEAC HAD insisted on fresh trials.
"A door has been opened for cotton farmers; one more manacle has been
removed," said Saroj Kashikar, president of the KCC. "Armed with this
new technology, Indian farmers are now better placed to take on
competition in the international arena." Adds Bhupinder Singh Mann,
president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union: "This is a victory for our
freedom struggle for access to technology, but we were expecting
this. They had delayed it so long, there was no scope for delaying it
Bt Cotton Clearance Divides Experts
- Economic Times (India), March 27, 2002
NEW DELHI: The vertical division in the Indian intelligentsia has
been evident once again after the government gave its nod for
commercial cultivation of Bt cotton. While those in favour of the
decision have described as freedom of access to technology, the
critics have termed it as a threat to Indian biodiversity and getting
pressurised by the multinational seeds lobby.
"The trials conducted have been highly inadequate and led to a
corrupt decision under the pressure of MNCs like Monsanto,"
environmentalist Vandana Shiva said. After the government's
announcement, she said within a generation or two bollworm pest
becomes resistant to Bt Cotton toxin and the transgenic seeds will be
counterproductive in the long run.
However, taking the opposite view, Kisan Coordination Committee's
Sharad Joshi said cultivation of Bt cotton will be a boon for farmers
which have been reeling under virulent bollworm attacks which had
destroyed a major part of the crop. He expressed optimism that the
farmers will be better placed to take on competition in the
Echoing similar sentiments, assistant secretary general of Assocham
DS Rawat said the new seeds will help enhance the productivity of the
crop which at present at 300 kg per hectar is the lowest in the world.
Disagreeing, NGO Gene Campaign's Suman Sahai said Indian cropping
pattern and climate was not at all suited for cultivation of Bt
cotton which will lose its resistance to pests sooner rather than
later. Sahai explained that to prevent the crop from losing its
resistance to pests like bollworm, the non-genentic cotton has to be
grown around areas where the Bt variety is grown.
Sahai pointed out that to have 'refuge' of this kind around areas on
which transgenic cotton is sown is not possible in India where the
land holdings are small and average around one to 1.5 acres. "Design
of planting is in such a manner so as to determine the area which is
safe for cultivation and 50 per cent of the land in US is planted
with non-genetic cotton," Shiva added.
Due to climatic differences between India and the US, the number of
pests are higher in India and they are liable to acquire resistance
to Bt toxin earlier than expected due to absence of refuge.
Joshi, however, said there were no hazards in Bt cotton cultivation
which cannot be taken care of in future and what is more important is
Shiva countered saying results show 70 per cent decline yield after
planting Bt cotton and in fact non-genetic varieties like LH-144 have
higher yield than Bt crop like Megh-184. She said presence of other
pests like Jassids and White Fly increased by 200-250 per cent in Bt
cotton. Bt varieties also have negative effect on insects which feed
on pests thereby disturbing the entire ecosystem, she said, adding
"integrated pest management calls for protecting biodiversity while
affect of trangenic cotton is opposite". (Note from Prakash:
Govt Clears Bt Cotton for Commercial Use
- Deccan Herald, March 27, 2002
India today made history by clearing the first transgenic crop - Bt
cotton "for commercial market, albeit with some restrictions, after
four years of fierce battle between the pro and anti-GM lobby on the
safety of genetically modified crops.
The decision is all the more significant in the light of Europe's
outright rejection of genetically modified crops whereas China has
already embraced GM crops.
After a marathon meeting of Genetic Engineering Approval Committee
(GEAC) under the Ministry of Environment and Forest, GEAC Chairman A
M Gokhale told reporters: "The committee decided unanimously in
favour of releasing Bt cotton for commercial use and we are now
working out the details.The test results are satisfactory and these
cotton seeds are not hazardous to environment."
The conditions might include release of specific varieties of seeds
and field design, where a certain percentage of the land under
cultivation should be sowed with non-GM seeds. At the same time,
there might be a buffer zone between the GM-sown land and other
areas. Monitoring, will be the responsibility of the State government
probably with the involvement of agriculture universities.
The issue of commercial use of Bt cotton has been hanging fire for
the last three years after the Review Committee on Genetic
Manipulation (RCGM) under the Department of Biotechnology cleared it
after small-scale trials. Surprisingly, the same committee found that
an indigenous variety of Bt cotton developed by Central Institute for
Cotton Research in Nagpur unfit even for a larger trial.
Bt cotton is capable of resisting attacks of bollworm, the commonest
cotton pest, by producing a toxin inside the plant. Genes from a soil
microbe Bacillus thuringiensis is inserted into the cotton plant to
make it produce its own pesticide.
Trials carried out in the last two years drew flak mainly on the
methods used. Faced with criticism, GEAC at its last meeting on June
18, 2001 decided to carry out one more round of testing by the Indian
Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) and Mahyco, the seed company
which is commercialising Bt cotton with backing from US agro-giant
Monsanto. Interestingly, ICAR was initially asked to carry out a
two-year trial which was later converted into an one-year trial.
In 2001, Mahyco-Monsanto carried out trials on 376 sites in
cotton-growing states, while ICAR tested it on 11 sites. Both claimed
that the results, not made public so far and based on which GEAC took
the decision, were positive.
Disappointed with the GEAC decision, the anti-GM lobby has charged
the government with flouting scientific and safety norms to risk the
environment and people at large. "We cannot adopt a technology only
because it has been successful in the US. The agro-climatic
conditions in that country are different from ours," said Dr Suman
Sahai from Gene Campaign. Similar sentiments were echoed by
Greenpeace as well as Dr Vandana Shiva of Research Foundation for
Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE). 'A corrupt decision'
The trials have been highly inadequate and led to a corrupt decision
under the pressure of MNCs like Monsanto: Environmentalist Vandana
The Indian cropping pattern and climate are not at all suited for
cultivation of Bt cotton which will lose its resistance to pests
sooner rather than later: Gene Campaign's Suman Sahai
GEAC'S Approval of Bt Cotton: A Shot In The Arm For The Biotech Sector
- New Delhi, March 26th, 2002
In a press statement, the Confederation of Indian Industry has stated
that the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee's (GEAC) approval of
Bt Cotton was a landmark decision and a shot in the arm for the
biotech industry. It would also pave the way for future research and
development in the agri-biotech industry in the country.
Stating that the approval was long overdue, CII has reiterated that
the decision would have a positive impact both on the domestic and
international front. It would also send a positive signal that the
government is committed to promoting the growth of knowledge-based
industries in India. The approval of Bt Cotton would help in the
economic upliftment of cotton farmers in the country and also provide
them with the requisite technology to become competitive.
Additional News Coverage....
Times of India March 27, 2002
Bt Cotton Should Be Formally Approved: Interview/ C. S. Prakash
Economic Times (India), March 26, 2002
Biotechnology is a fast growing area filled with controversy. Is it
the answer to Malthusianism? Or is it a Frankenstein's monster? To
get answers to these questions, Sauvik Chakraverti spoke to Professor
C S Prakash, who teaches plant biotechnology at Tuskegee University.
He also advises the government of India on these matters. Excerpts
from an exclusive interview:
*What is your reaction to what happened in Gujarat regarding the
release of Bt cotton seeds?
- It was inevitable. For two years, the Indian regulatory authorities
have been dragging their feet on the issue. On June 19, they had
absolutely no logical, rational or scientific reason to say 'No'. My
reaction is of mixed delight. But I would not like to condone any
illegal cultivation of unapproved biotech crops, since it undermines
consumers' confidence. The situation the government finds itself in
is like finding your daughter pregnant. There is no other choice but
to get her married. So, I do hope that the use of Bt cotton will be
formally approved and that farmers will not have to go for contraband
* Do you think that the popular adoption of genetically modified
seeds in Gujarat is something that was waiting to happen in India?
Did you expect the farmers to adopt Bt cotton, given all the protests
and demonstrations we have seen around the world?
- Definitely. It is just that farmers have finally spoken out. We
knew all along that, given a choice of superior solutions, farmers
make rational decisions, based on simple economics and cost-benefit
analyses. Quite rationally, they are willing to bear additional costs
if these bring them substantial returns.
* What do you think explains the contrast between the reaction of
environmentalists overseas and in India? While internationally they
have gone around uprooting trial fields, in India they have not
entered any field planted by farmers.
- It is surprising that Indian environmentalists are now so quiet.
Earlier, they maintained that BT is not good for Indian farmers, that
the technology has no value, and that we have to preserve the
existing system of saving seeds for the next planting. The fact is,
these environmentalists have absolutely no knowledge of farming and
do not speak for farmers. So, when real farmers get involved,
environmentalists do not have any say.
* Did the company that released this BT variety violate IPR regulations?
- No, they did not since the patent has not yet come into effect.
What they did violate is the bio-safety regulation of the Indian
government. Under it, any genetically modified product requires a
local approval before it can be released into the environment or
commercialised. India has a two-step approval process. We have six
years of Indian data on Bt cotton, and so far its agronomic
performance has been spectacular. There is not one single safety
incident of any concern. The irony is that India imports over ten
lakh bales of cotton, much of it being Bt cotton from such places as
Australia and China. It is absurd that we force our farmers to spend
on pesticides, given the often irresponsible manner in which these
are used, rather than just approve Bt cotton.
The introduction of genetically-modified products has been slow since
existing food and environmental regulation is based on the
precautionary principle. If this principle were to be thrown to the
wind, what is the worst case scenario?
- The worst case scenario would be the introduction of minute levels
of allergens into food. Take the case of peanuts. Some people are
highly allergic to them and may have a fatal reaction from eating
just one. Now assume a genetically-modified chickpea, in which one
peanut gene has been introduced. A peanut-allergic person would have
to eat about a tonne of chickpea to get the same level of protein
present in a single peanut. In fact, there is far more danger in
eating normal food.
The reluctance of the Indian authorities to approve Bt cotton has
interesting historical parallels. For instance, when the first motor
car was introduced in England, the British government ruled that the
speed limit should be five miles an hour. Moreover, regulations
required someone to walk in front of each car and announce its
imminent arrival. Needless to say, the development of the motor car
was blocked in Britain.
Similarly, electric lights were banned in Britain for thirty years
after they were first introduced, due to the gas industry lobby.
Italy has absolutely little or no corporate bio-medical research, due
to overt regulation, despite its robust economy and high per capita
income. Mindless regulation is similarly killing agricultural
biotechnology in Europe.
Everything has a risk, but that the risk must be put into its proper
framework. About 3,00,000 children die in India every year due to
rota virus, which causes dysentery and diarrhoea. A vaccine was
developed in the National Institute of Health, Washington, but was
abandoned this year since it caused rashes in few US children.
In the United States, just one or two children are hit by rota virus
every year. The risks in vaccinating against this virus are,
therefore, unacceptably high. It is outrageous that the Americans
shelved the vaccine, given that in India the risk factor is
irrelevant. Every society must look at risk for itself.
* Please explain the BT concept for a lay reader.
- BT stands for 'Bacillus thuringiensis', which is a common soil
bacterium. This bacterium has been used as an organic pesticide for
about forty years. When you spray the bacillus onto the plant,
caterpillar larvae eat it. The bacillus is only toxic to caterpillar
larvae. It does not kill butterflies, beetles or bees. However, the
bacillus never caught on commercially as a pesticide, because it gets
degraded in the sun. Farmers have to keep on spraying all the time.
Genetic engineering came along and took the Bacillus thuringiensis
gene and put it straight into the relevant crop plant. So the plants
produce the protein, instead of it having to be sprayed on.
*So, if BT was sprayed and the product was sold, it would be called
- Ironically, yes.
* What about the growth of resistance to other pests?
- If Bt cotton is used too much, pests may become resistant to it.
This, in any case, is likely to happen even with spraying or
antibiotics. This is why we are telling farmers that 10 per cent of
their crop should continue to be regular cotton. Pests can feed on
that and not be compelled to adapt. This strategy seems to have
worked. There are millions of acres under Bt cotton cultivation, yet
no pest has developed resistance.
* What about the gene flow issue?
- Look at rice, for instance. After they discovered dwarf rice in
Taiwan, every rice became dwarf because we put that gene into all
popular rice varieties around the world. This is because dwarfness is
a big asset in agriculture. Not one single wild rice has acquired
this dwarf gene, despite thirty-five years of dwarf rice on probably
250 to 300 million hectares. The point is that dwarfness has no
positive selection value in a wild rice. Even if the gene were to be
there, it would just get eliminated.
So there are two ecosystems - the man made one and the wild one. The
man made one began with the domestication of grain, mainly for making
alcohol. The rice was shattering, so man collected a mutant where the
grains did not shatter.
The seeds in the wild are always dormant, and now are germinating
immediately depending on their survival mechanism. We are making sure
that they do not germinate on the stock itself and also that they do
not stay dormant for too long.
So we made a lot of little changes. Take the instance of corn that is
in the wild, it looks like a small little pencil. But modern corn is
about two foot long and big. They were all changed over ten thousand
years. So, if you put most of the modern varieties of crop food
plants into the wild, they would not survive for one day. It is like
taking a little Chihuahua or Daschund and throwing it to a pack of
wolves. It would not survive for one hour. So, similarly, except in a
few instances, these new varieties are of absolutely no evolutionary
Behind All The Fluff: Clearing the Air on Bt Cotton in India
- Barun Mitra, Liberty Institute, New Delhi, India. Barun Mitra
History of the controversy: The controversy over Bt Cotton has been
simmering since 1998, when a private firm Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds
Company (or Mahyco, in which Monsanto has a minority stake) began
field trials under the supervision of the Indian Council for
Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the Department of Biotechnology
(DBT). On learning of this, environmental activists burnt down trial
fields in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. But even after three years of
field trials, which did not throw up any signs of damage to animals
or the environment, the government insisted on more trials, saying
the previous field trials were not conducted properly - that the
one-acre plots were too small for extrapolation and that the crops
were sown after major pest attacks were over.
Matters came to a head in 2001 when around 500 farmers in Gujarat
were found to have planted Bt Cotton on around 11,000 acres. (Later,
it was discovered that Bt Cotton had also been planted in 480 acres
in Andhra Pradesh.) Bt Cotton cultivation in Gujarat had been under
way for two years but came to light only when a major bollworm attack
left many fields with conventional cotton devastated, while the ones
using Bt Cotton not only survived, but thrived. Though the seeds were
far more expensive - Rs 50 a kg against Rs 7-8 a kg of conventional
seed - the yields were significantly more - 10 quintals an acre
against 1.20 quintals of conventional crop. The fibre was also finer
and stronger. Farmers were, understandably, jubilant. However, since
the seed had not been cleared by the government, they were asked to
burn standing crops, worth a significant Rs 105 crore. Meanwhile,
large stocks of raw cotton had already found their way to the ginning
and waving mills.
Though the flouting of the law by Navbharat Seeds (the company that
sold the seed to the farmers) is regrettable, the controversy only
highlighted the impatience of the farmers with government dithering
on the subject of commercialising Bt Cotton. Plagued by repeated pest
attacks, they were looking for some succour, which Bt Cotton provided
Why is BT Cotton important for India?
Cotton is an important cash crop, covering an estimated nine million
hectares of cultivated area. The lives of approximately one million
farmers are dependent on the fortunes of this crop. In addition,
nearly 60 million people are employed along the entire cotton value
chain, from weaving to textile and garment exports. Directly and
indirectly, it accounts for 33 per cent of the country's export
Despite having the largest acreage under cotton - 25 per cent of the
global cotton area - India ranks third among the world's cotton
producing countries, accounting for a mere 12.3 per cent of global
cotton production. This compares poorly with China with 22 per cent
and the United States with 19.4 per cent. Worse, Indian cotton fields
have the lowest yields - around 300 kg per hectare against the world
average of 580 kg per hectare. Chinese cotton fields, in contrast,
yield 1043 kg a hectare. Pakistan, which has only three million
hectares under cotton, reports an average yield of 602 kg a hectare
and Uzbekistan, with 1.4 million hectares, yields 685 kg a hectare.
Over the past decade, Indian cotton production has fluctuated,
dipping severely since 1999. See Table:
Year Production (million bales)
(1 bale = 170 kg each)
Source: Economic Survey, Indian Planning Experience: A Statistical
For the past few years, cotton production has been severely affected
by attacks of the dreaded American Bollworm. In the 2000-01 kharif
season, 13 per cent of the country's cotton crop was damaged. The
states most affected were Andhra Pradesh, the country's largest
producer of cotton, Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana, driving farmers,
especially in Andhra Pradesh and Punjab, to suicide. The high cost of
cultivation, the decline in production due to repeated bollworm
attacks and the lack of crop insurance pushed the farmers deep into
debt. Pesticides are not only expensive but also often spurious, as
are seeds, and the government has done precious little to address
India is the second largest consumer of cotton after China and
imports have been increasing steadily - from 69,500 tonnes in 1995-96
to 212,300 tonnes in 2000-01. This is both due to declining
production as well as the fact that Bt cotton in global markets is of
better quality and cheaper. So even Indian cotton mills are
increasingly importing their raw cotton requirements. Global cotton
prices are at an all-time low of 51.6 cents per pound. The Indian
cotton farmer is thus getting outpriced in both the domestic market
and the global market.
How will BT Cotton Help?
What is BT Cotton? : It is an insect-protected variety of cotton seed
into which a gene from a soil-borne bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis
(Bt) containing a protein that kills certain pests, has been
introduced. In the case of cotton, the Bt protein acts on three major
caterpillar pests - the tobacco budworm, the American bollworm and
the pink bollworm.
Bt has been widely used since the 1950s in the form of an aerial
insecticidal spray. The introduction of Bt into seeds in the
mid-1990s provides a more biologically sustainable method of managing
Incidentally, the Bt technology is not confined to cotton alone but
has also been used successfully in the case of corn and potatoes.
Experiments are also being conducted on a range of products like
brinjals, cauliflower and rice by the Indian Agricultural Research
Institute and private firms.
1. The reduced use of conventional broad-spectrum insecticide: All
countries using Bt Cotton have reported a significant drop in the use
of conventional insecticide sprays, with the total number of spray
reductions per hectare ranging between 1.0 to 7.7 sprays. In China
and Mexico, total insecticide use has fallen by 60-80 per cent
following the introduction of Bt Cotton.
In India, cotton farmers account for the sale of nearly 50 per cent
of broad-spectrum insecticides. They have found that in the case of
pest attacks on conventional crops, even 12 to 14 sprayings with
insecticides could not save the crop. For farmers reeling under high
costs of pesticides, transgenic cotton can help save as much as Rs
1800/- per hectare on insecticides. One of the farmers in Gujarat who
planted Bt Cotton says he saved Rs 5,000 an acre on pesticide.
Besides, there are other unexpected benefits.
For each spray eliminated, the farmer reduces spray trips and other
associated costs. In India, the number of sprays can vary from eight
to 15. In severe infestation situations like 2001, farmers in the
North sprayed as many as 20 times.
2. Improved yields: Since insecticides are costly, it may not make
much economic sense for farmers to spray their fields when the level
of infestation is low. Therefore, they may tend to write off small
swathes of infected crop. With the use of Bt seeds, plants are
protected all the time. So, farmers don't need to forego even small
portions of the crop. Overall yield, thus, improves significantly.
In China, the average gross yields from Bt Cotton increased by 15 per
cent over conventional strains. In Spain, Bt cotton trial plots
offered a 12 per cent yield advantage over conventional varieties
sprayed with insecticides. Even in India, field trials showed a 14 to
38 per cent increase in cotton yield.
3. Lower farming risks: The use of Bt Cotton more or less eliminates
risks associated with potential crop losses. It reduces chances of
major infestation or problems arising from poorly timed applications,
or applications missing swathes of crops, washing off of insecticides
by rains or development of resistance by pests.
The reduced costs and higher yields will obviously translate into
improved profitability for farmers.
1. Beneficial insects are not harmed: The in-plant Bt technology does
not harm beneficial insects, which conventional insecticides do.
2. Runoff of insecticides is reduced: With the use of transgenic
cotton seeds, the possibility of insecticides being washed away into
local water bodies is drastically reduced. Water contamination
chances are minimised and so is danger to animals and organisms in
streams, rivers and ponds.
3. Reduced chances of pollution: With the need to spray insecticides
drastically reduced, there are lesser chances of air pollution. Also,
the health risks to unprotected farm workers and the local population
are also reduced.
How prevalent is it? The resistance to BT Cotton within India is
inexplicable, given the fact that the seed is being extensively used
in all major cotton producing countries since the mid-1990s with no
perceptible adverse effect on either man or beast or the environment.
Apart from the United States, which first commericalised Bt Cotton in
1996, other countries where Bt Cotton is grown are Mexico (where
one-third of the cotton area is under Bt Cotton), Argentina,
Australia, South Africa and China. China has close to 3 million
hectares under transgenic cotton, a huge jump from the 60,000
hectares in 1998. Even Indonesia, an extremely minor player in the
world cotton market and, therefore, with far less at stake than
India, commercialised BT Cotton in 2001 and this variety now covers
around 4,000 hectares.
How safe is it?
1. Opponents of BT technology have argued that the bollworm pests can
develop resistance to the BT toxin in genetically modified cotton.
The European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering claims there are 26
species of insect pests that have developed substantial resistance to
In 1997, scientists in Arizona found the frequency of a resistance
gene in the pink bollworm was about 1 in 10, which was roughly 100
times higher than estimates for other pests of BT crops. They,
therefore, projected rapid increases in resistance levels in
subsequent years. However, the estimated frequency of resistance did
not increase from 1997 to 1999.
To date there is no evidence of bollworms developing resistance to Bt
Cotton anywhere in the world. Good resistance management can delay or
prevent the onset of resistance. Methods used to accomplish this
include refuge management, developing new products (with different
modes of action) proper monitoring of performance in the field and
optimum dosage in terms of protein expression in the plant.
In any case, this concern applies to conventional insecticides as
well. That is why it is important to continue research into and
experimentation with Bt Cotton so that it is possible to find
solutions to these problems on a continuous basis.
2. The alien gene in Bt cotton seed can be transmitted to other
plants, endangering other plant varieties. Cotton is predominantly a
self-pollinating crop, but can be cross-pollinated by certain
insects. However, outcrossing of the Bt gene to other species is
unlikely because, for one, cultivated cotton is incompatible with
several other varieties and so cannot produce fertile offspring.
Although outcrossing to wild or untamed species can occur, commercial
cotton production generally does not happen in the same geographical
locations as these varieties. Finally, there are no identified
non-cotton plants that are sexually compatible with cultivated cotton.
3. The effect of the genetic marker used to insert the gene in the
seed is not known. The Bt protein or toxin used to kill the bollworm
could enter the food chain through cotton oil and oil cake used to
Tests conducted in the United States show that before cotton is
processed, the Bt protein is present in pollen at levels just above
the limit of detection. After processing, this was found to be
present in non-detectable levels in major cottonseed processed
products like refined oil and cottonseed meal.
Who loses if BT Cotton gains? No one but the dreaded bollworm.
Who gains if bollworm loses? The farmer, whose profitability
improves with assured production of higher and improved quality
yields and reduced input costs. The consumer, who gets a better
quality product at a lesser cost.
So the use of BT Cotton could be a win-win situation for all.
Your praising the Govt. of India reminds me of a cartoon that is
especially apt in this international context. It depicts a primitive
prehistoric warlord conversing with his lawyer. The latter has just
informed his client that he's accused of pillaging and plundering
Paris. "What'll we do," asks the worried client. "I'll try to get it
reduced," the lawyer promises. "To what?" "Pillaging and plundering
Helsinki," says the lawyer.
See below. - Henry
India's War on Vegetables
- Henry I. Miller, Asian Wall Street Journal, March 26, 2002
Government officials often craft policies that benefit themselves at
the expense of society as a whole. This seems a particular specialty
at India's Department of Biotechnology, which has just announced that
it will spend $500,000 on creating two facilities to screen crops and
other food products for "transgenic" gene sequences -- the use of
genetic modification techniques to move material between species.
This is rather like creating an elaborate government mechanism to
detect which vehicles are fitted with a modern braking system. In
both cases, the characteristic in question is a clear improvement
over previous technologies, and the information gained is of no use
This project by the Department of Biotechnology is reminiscent of its
previous bumbling. Several years ago, the same government regulators
used the threat of fines and imprisonment to force scientists at the
Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi to destroy their
small field trial of a variety of brinjal (eggplant) that had been
genetically improved so it was resistant to insect pests. Not that
there was anything even remotely dangerous about the field trial, it
was simply that the investigators had not fully complied with all the
paperwork required before testing a genetically modified plant
Such initiatives are reminiscent of the foibles of the fictional
government department immortalized in the BBC sitcom, "Yes,
Minister," in which bureaucratic logic operates in a world of its
own. India is, after all, a country with little effective regulation
of many high-risk activities, such as public transport and
occupational hazards; and its expenditures on public health are
woefully inadequate. It is not unusual, for example, to observe
pre-teens performing welding or using dangerous machinery with no
protective gear and wearing only a loincloth. Malaria, filariasis and
other viral diseases, which have been all but eradicated from
industrialized countries, are epidemic there.
However, rather than address those problems, Indian bureaucrats
reckon that what the nation really needs is a public-health apparatus
for detecting those crops and foods made with a new and superior
technology. It's "like offering swimming lessons to people in the
Sahara," according to Calestous Juma, director of the Science,
Technology and Innovation Program at Harvard University, referring to
a conceptually similar United Nations-based initiative.
The wrong-headed approach of Indian officials turns on its head a
basic tenet of regulation -- that the amount of oversight a product
or activity receives should be commensurate with the level of risk
that it poses. Instead India has adopted the opposite approach. Only
the more precisely crafted and more predictable genetically modified
crops are subjected to extensive and expensive testing and monitoring
regimes, while plants crafted using less precise and predictable
techniques such as wide crosses (hybridizations in which genes are
moved between unrelated plants) and intensive mutagenesis are exempt
from this scrutiny.
Consider, for example, the relatively new man-made "species" of
Triticum agropyrotriticum, which is grown by combining the genomes of
bread wheat and a grass sometimes called quackgrass or couchgrass.
Possessing all the chromosomes of wheat and one extra whole genome
from quackgrass, T. agropyrotriticum could, at least in theory, pose
several kinds of problems, since it takes an established plant
variety and introduces tens of thousands of foreign genes into it.
These concerns include the potential for increased invasiveness of
the plant in the field, and the possibility that quackgrass-derived
proteins could be toxic or allergenic.
But Indian regulators evince no concern about these possibilities,
and such plant varieties -- which are certainly "genetically
modified" and harbor "transgenes" according to any reasonable
definition -- are subject to no review prior to field testing or to
entering the food chain. However, if a gene from couchgrass (or any
other organism) was instead added into wheat using modern genetic
modification techniques the resulting variety would be subject to
extraordinary and hugely expensive regulatory regimes.
India's discriminatory rules restricting products made with the new
biotechnology conflict with the broad consensus that the newest
techniques are no more than a refinement of earlier ones, and that
transfer of a gene by molecular techniques does not, per se, confer
risk. Instead the use of the newest and most precise techniques of
biotechnology makes the final product even safer, as it is now
possible to introduce pieces of DNA that contain one or a few
well-characterized genes. In contrast, the older genetic techniques
transferred a variable number of genes haphazardly, making it more
difficult to be certain about the traits introduced into the plants.
The irony is that the discriminatory regulatory burdens imposed by
Indian bureaucrats are making it more difficult to produce pest
resistant crops, an innovation that could not only increase crop
yields but also replace many chemical pesticides. That makes little
sense, since improving crops through genetic modification is surely
less environmentally hazardous and more publicly acceptable than
manufacturing and spraying hazardous chemicals. (Remember the Bhopal
disaster in 1984, when a gas leak from a pesticide factory killed
3,000 and injured more than 50,000.)
By implementing wrong-headed policies that discourage the testing and
use of important new products and misallocating public resources,
Indian bureaucrats are no less culpable than if they were to permit
the building of an unsafe dam or the administration of contaminated
blood products. They should be held accountable.
Mr. Miller is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and the
author of "Policy Controversy in Biotechnology: An Insider's View"
(Academic Press, 1997). He was an official at the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration from 1979-1994.
GEAC Approval To Commercialise Bt Cotton Crucial: CII
New Delhi, March 25th, 2002.
The Confederation of Indian Industry in a press statement has urged
the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), scheduled to meet
on March 26th, to grant the approval of genetically improved Bt
Cotton as a technology, keeping in view the interest of the Indian
farmers and industry.
The CII has pointed out that the approval of Bt Cotton was of utmost
importance as it had great potential for economic upliftment of
cotton framers in the country. Elaborating further, CII has stated
that Bt Cotton plants yield more cotton per hectare of land and
required much less chemical pesticide as they had an in-built gene to
produce their own bio-pesticide.
According to CII, the Bt Cotton, if approved and introduced in the
country and accepted as a safe and advantageous method of technology,
would surge the development of agri-biotech industry in the country.
The approval would also provide the Indian farmer with the requisite
technology and make him competitive with his counterparts in the
rest of the world, according to CII.
The approval of Bt Cotton, CII has stressed, would also send a
positive signal to the Indian industry that the government is
committed to promoting the growth of knowledge -based industries in
Despite these clear advantages, the approval, CII has stated, has
been delayed on some pretext or the other. Last June the GEAC, under
the Ministry of Environment, had deferred the decision to
commercialise Bt Cotton stating that more data was needed to
conclusively prove that Bt Cotton has a yield advantage, CII has
CII has reiterated that it was imperative for the government to take
a rational decision based on the outcome of scientific research and
not let ideological or emotional considerations get in the way.
Emotional barriers were present even during the Green Revolution and
were overcome through public education and industry, which sees its
own future significantly dependent on an efficient agricultural
system capable of delivering raw materials and globally competitive
prices, CII has pointed out.
CII has pointed out that India should learn its lessons from China
and Indonesia, who have introduced Bt Cotton in a big way in their
agriculture sector. China, having empowered itself with this
technology over the last five years, and now being in the WTO, has
recently proved that it is in a position to dictate terms, even to
the USA in genetically improved imports, simply because it has moved
significantly ahead in the use of technology. If India does not move
fast enough, it would be left behind, which in turn, would affect our
economy in the long run, according to CII.
CII has consistently pushed for an effective, time bound and single
window application processing cell for biotech products. According to
the white paper on regulatory reform put forwards to the government,
CII has recommended that financial, human and infrastructural
resources for regulatory function need to go up.