Thursday 4 October 2007

Genetic Engineering, Bt Cotton

Business India, December 14-27, 1998

To terminate or not to…………

Violent agitators want the farm experiments on genetically engineered cotton to be terminated. Business India examines the issues involved

Shivanand Kanavi

Professor Nanjundaswamy and his followers in the Karnataka Rajya Raita Sangha (State Farmers’ Association) are very angry; in recent weeks they have been uprooting and burning boll worm resistant cotton plants, from experimental farms in Bellary and Raichur in Karnataka. Others have engaged in similar vandalism in Andhra Pradesh. Taken by surprise, farmers who had volunteered for the experiments have opposed these attacks and asked for police protection. The agitators allege "Terminator technology is being tried on unsuspecting third world farmers by the multinational seed company Monsanto." Some ministers in Andhra Pradesh too have fallen prey to agitators' propaganda and asked for banning of the experiments. Dr P.K. Ghosh, advisor to the Department of Biotechnology, has however deplored these attacks, clarifying that the experiments have nothing to do with the terminator gene and are about boll worm resistant cotton. Moreover, they are being conducted under the strict supervision of various agencies of the Central government. But no one is listening.

Comparison between Luddites and the crusaders against experiments in genetically engineered cotton ends with their violent methods. Luddites were manual textile workers displaced by the advent of machinery in early 19th century England, who went about expressing anger against their misery by smashing up machinery. They saw machines as the cause of their condition. The current agitators claim to be farmer's representatives and well-wishers but are preventing farmers from being voluntary participants in experiments whose successful outcome would lead to a better cotton crop, with lesser use of insecticides.

It is patent disinformation to say that current experiments are to do with the "terminator gene.” The experiments are to do with cotton that is genetically engineered to resist boll worm attack. It has been known for almost a century that a particular type of soil bacteria produces proteins that are toxic to some common pests attacking cotton, corn and potato. A German scientist, Ernst Berliner, who rediscovered it in 1915, in Thuringen, named the microorganism, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Since then this bacterial culture has been used as a commercial insecticide.

Monsanto's biotechnologists patented in March 1996 (US patent No: 5,500,365) an ingenious way to take out the genes from Bt, that are responsible for the production of toxic protein that has insecticidal properties. They then implanted these genes into cotton seeds. Such genetically engineered cotton seeds produce the toxin that will kill boll worms - a major pest that attacks the cotton boll. If a boll worm larvae eats a leaf or any part of the cotton plant, then the toxin attacks its gut, leading to its death much .before it can harm the crop. Monsanto sells this technology under the trademark Bollgard.

Several seed companies have been licensed the Bollgard technology in the US. After completing all the regulatory trials, checking for toxic effects on human beings, birds which eat the insects etc, the technology has been commercialised. Over 2.2 milllon acres of cotton growing area, that is 22 per cent of the cotton growing area in US, was planted with Bollgard cotton seed in 1997. It was found that 60 per cent of Bollgard cotton was not attacked by boll worms at all, and others applied anti-boll worm insecticide only once as compared to four to six applications in conventional cotton. It is also being planted in Australia and China.

India is the world's largest producer of cotton (32 per cent in 1995-96). However, due to the threat of boll worm, cotton requires one of the most intensive insecticide application. It is estimated that agrochemicals worth Rs.1,590 crore were used by Indian cotton farmers in 1995-96 alone. Thus, one would assume that Bollgard technology, if proven in Indian conditions, would be a boon to cotton growers and the environment alike.

Terminator gene
Terminator gene the villain in the agitator’s plot is the name given to a concept patent obtained by Delta & Pine Land and the US Department of Agriculture by its opponents. It has nothing to do with the experiments being conducted under strict government supervision.

In March 1998, Delta & Pine Land, the largest cotton seed seller in the US, was granted a concept patent along with the US Department of Agriculture (US Patent No: 5,723, 765, control of plant gene expression, Inventors: M.J. Oliver, J.E. Quisenberry, N.L.G. Trolinder and D.L. Keim). The concept, when further developed and implemented, can lead to seeds that will yield normal crops, though the second generation seeds will be rendered sterile. If successful this technology can stop the farmer from saving high yielding seed incorporation this technology, for the next sowing. They will be all sterlile, this will force him to go back to the seed company. This has been termed “terminator gene” technology by Pat Mooney of Canada-based Raral Advancement Foundation International, and organisation that campaigns against seed companies like Monsanto (see http://www.

The technology is highly complex and requires all such seeds to be soaked in the antibiotic tetracycline before sale. The cost of technology and tetracycline are going to make such seeds extremely expensive. Thus, if any farmer were to buy them it can only be for extraordinary yields and other benefits. Moreover, ad for as hybrids go, the farmers is used to buying seeds every year since the hybrid vigour diminishes by almost 50per cent in the second generation seeds. Thus the commercial necessity and viability of this technology is under question.

Biologists like Martha Crouch of Indian University, and several NGOs have expressed the fear that such seeds, if ever produced, can render other plants of the same species grown nearby also sterile through what is called outcrossing, they also warn against possible toxic effects on insects and birds. Naturally, the terminator seeds have to be thoroughly tested before approval. Moreover , even if the regulatory authorities US approve such seeds, other countries need not follow suit. Even under WTO agreements on Intellectual Property Rights and other related agreements regarding plant varieties, individual countries can disallow certain varieties as inimical to public good, good security, environmental concerns etc. under a sui generis system.

Terminator technology is only confined to Delta & Pine Land’s labs and no seed using this concept has yet been produced for rigorous regulatory trials , leave alone commercial production. The technology has remained and important scientific feat in terms of genetic engineering, but of no real world consequences yet. A parallel can be drawn in the closing of sheep Dolly, by scientists in Scotland last year. A great achievement in life science. But if one were to start a campaign against it on ethical grounds saying this can lead to human cloning, Nazi eugenics and so on, then it would be highly premature and sensationalist. That is what the preset agitation against Bollgard experiments, is all about!

Monsanto, which has been on an acquiring spree, has made a friendly bid to buy out the controlling share in Delta & Pine Land, the world’s largest cottonseed company. At present, it owns only 7 per cent of the stock, the takeover is expected to be sooth according to Monsanto sources. To claim however, as the agitators do, that Monsanto will acquire terminator gene technology in future and use it in conjunction with its highly successful bioengineered seeds and hence any experiments using Monsanto’s present technology, even if they are beneficial to the Indian farmer, should be terminated, is highly convoluted, to say the least.

Biotech revolution
Mahyco, the leading cotton seed company in India, hence tied up with Monsanto in a joint venture, Mahyco Monsanto Biotech India Pvt. Ltd. to implement Bollgard technology in its own best -selling varieties. After all, Bollgard seeds of any other country cannot be used in India. So Mahyco has done considerable research leading to absorption of Bollgard in 10 of its varieties. It is these varieties that are being field-tested in 40 centres all over India under different agro-climatic conditions. Many of them are Mahyco's own research farms. However, some of them belong to private cotton growers. The tests are being conducted under the strict supervision of the Department of Biotechnology of the Central government. Due to the sensitive nature of biotechnology, over half a dozen committees working under the biotechnology and environmental departments are reviewing the results. When the trials were almost complete came these sudden attacks, causing dismay among scientists.

Mark Wells, national marketing manager of Monsanto in India says: "Genetically engineered crops are being scrutinised and tried under the strictest of conditions like any drug meant for human use. And rightly so. We find that highly competent Indian scientists are monitoring the tests. Monsanto will not provide any technology that will adversely impact the environment, current agricultural practices or force farmers to use our technology. New products and technology and must increase farmers’ income otherwise they will be rejected by them.”

Indian agricultural scientists have had more than three decades of experience in breeding hybrids and high yielding varieties. In fact, much of the enthusiasm for cotton in the past 20 years among farmers is due to the introduction of new high yielding varieties by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the Agricultural Universities. It is however strange that the network of agricultural universities, with vast experience in in situ experiments, are not involved in the current trials. Vijay Kumar Gidnavar, deputy director of research, University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad says; “we are looking forward to the results of the experiments. Bollagard is a major achievement in plant biotechnology and its success will give a fillip to biotech work among Indian scientists as well. In fact, we do have several biotech projects going on at the laboratory level already”

Let us not miss it
Biotechnology can yield a number of benefits for farmers. In fact, the report of the World Bank panel on transgenic crops, authored by eight internationally renowned scientists, including M.S.Swaminathan, states: “Transgenic crops are not in principle more injurious to the environment than traditionally bred crops. Transgenic crops that are developed and used widely can be very helpful, and may prove essential, to world food production and agricultural sustainability. Biotechnology can certainly be an ally to those developing integrated pest management and crop management systems.”

For example, potato impregnated with another gene from Bt has proven resistant to the potato beetle. Similarly, protection from corn borer for maize has been provided by another gene from Bt Besides insect protection, biotech can lead to better weed management, thereby increasing the yields. A major development has been the production of genetically engineered soybean, maize and rape seed that are resistant to herbicides. A broad spectrum herbicide like glyphosate kills most of the weeds and the crop as well, since it inhibits ESPSP synthase, an enzyme essential to plant growth. But biotechnology has enabled scientists to develop seeds thereby making weed control a simple matter of spraying glyphosate. Research is on to develop genetically engineered varieties that are resistant to various fungi and viruses as well.

In fact, mimicking the famous Moore’s law (Gordon Moore, founder of Intel) in micro electronics which states that “computing power of silicon chips will double every 18-24 months”, Monsanto has coined its own ‘Monsanto Law’, which states, “the ability to identify and use genetic information will double every 12-24 months.”

Should Indian agriculture miss this biotech revolution. When it is clear that environmentally friendly intensive agriculture is the only solution to the problem of feeding a billion Indians? One can understand the Frankenstein syndrome- fear of tampering with nature to produce an uncontrollable monster. But then, is not agriculture itself an artifice?

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