ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

1 November 2002


more GM coverage via India Together here:


A mindless conviction

Despite failures and warnings, GM foods find a supportive government
Ranjit Devraj
October 2002, [IPS - Inter Press Service]

Dire warnings by food security experts and crop failures have not deterred  India from going ahead with plans to allow farmers to grow genetically  modified (GM) food crops that are developed indigenously, as well as from  seeds supplied by transnational firms.

In March this year, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) under the Ministry of Environment and Forests cleared Bt Cotton for commercial planting. These are cotton seeds spliced with genes taken from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which is deadly to the bollworm pest. The GEAC cleared Bt cotton, developed by the U.S. seed giant Monsanto, in spite of the legal challenges to its planting pending in the Supreme Court. These challenges alleged irregular testing by farmers' unions and non-government organizations led by the Research Foundation for Science Technology and Ecology (RFSTE).

Now, farmers are reaping the bitter fruits of GM crops. There have been spectacular crop failures in the three major cotton growing states - Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh. A fourth state, Karnataka, has banned the sale of Bt cotton seeds.

Monsanto officials told IPS that the crop failures have been due to droughts followed by unseasonal rains, and that this resulted in root rot, to which the Bt cotton crops have no resistance. But according to newspaper reports, Bt cotton crop failures in Gujarat  were due to bollworm attacks. This means, they say, that the Bt crop showed no resistance to bollworms, given the failures in the districts of Bhavnagar, Surendranagar and Rajkot. The state-run Gujarat Agricultural University has now been tasked by the state government to submit a detailed status report on the extent of the bollworm attack on the 18,000 hectares now planted to Bt cotton.

But in spite of the failures, the government is keen on another crop spliced with Bt developed by the Delhi-based Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) -- the 'golden acre' variety of cabbage that is consumed in large quantities locally. As with Bt cotton, the main advantage of Bt cabbage is its vastly reduced use of pesticides, says its developers at the IARI. "In laboratory conditions, the genetically modified cabbage plant expressed a resistance level of 70 percent against its most dreaded pest, the diamond-back moth," said R.C. Bhattacharya, a scientist at the IARI.  The moth destroys more than a billion dollars worth of cabbage around the world each year.

But according to Devinder Sharma, director of the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security (FBFS), crops like cabbage are not important for food security in India. Thus, he says, the money invested in developing Bt cabbage may not be worthwhile. But, he adds, there is a real danger of the toxic Bt gene entering the food chain with unknown consequences to public health and to the environment from a series of genetically engineered vegetables -- including tomato, tobacco and eggplant -- being developed at government laboratories. "Even GM material unintended for human consumption could end up in the human food chain," Sharma said.

But the most immediate concern of anti-GM activists is the GEAC move to  grant approval for the large-scale farming of genetically modified mustard  seed developed by Aventis/Proagro and promoted by Proagro PGS (India), a  subsidiary of the Belgium-based Hoechst Schering AgrEvo. "The performance  of this variety of mustard is inferior to existing Indian  varieties and there are reports of high levels of genetic contamination of  normal mustard varieties in neighboring fields," said Suman Sahai, who  leads Gene Campaign, an NGO based in the national capital.

Sahai and other campaigners have demanded that the GEAC make public the result of the mandatory Food and Feed Safety trials that have been carried out so far. A Gene Campaign statement released on Thursday said: "The administration appears anxious to please TNCs and curry favor with the money bags even if it spells ruin for this country's farmers." The statement cited tests conducted by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) in five locations, which showed pollen flow of as much as 200 meters when the recommended isolation distance is 50 meters.

Such is the fear of genetic contamination that, recently, the European Union banned imports of honey from Canada because Canadian producers could not guarantee that their honey is free of pollen from GM plants that are not approved in Europe. Organic farmers in Canada have launched a class-action suit against Monsanto and Aventis, transnational firms that sell herbicide-resistant GM canola widely grown in Canada. The farmers argue that these companies should be held liable for lost sales due to contamination by its GM genes.

Similarly in India, Kishore Tewari, president of the influential Vidarbaha Regional People's Movement in Maharashtra, is asking the government to make good the estimated 100 million dollars worth of loss to cotton farmers in the state who used Bt cotton seeds. Cotton experts like K. Venugopal, a former scientific officer with the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) in central India, have said that Monsanto's Bt cotton, unlike local varieties, was susceptible to the leaf curl virus.

When it approved Bt cotton, the GEAC cited its acceptance by China. But since then, the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences reported that Bt cotton, which makes up 35 percent of the neighboring country's cotton crop, harms natural parasitic enemies of the bollworm and encourages other pests as well. China has also refused to commercially release 46 other genetically modified crops that it has developed for fear of human and environmental risks.

An additional danger for India is the fact that unlike in other countries, oil is extracted from cotton seed and used for cooking and the residue fed to cattle, raising the possibility of the toxic genes entering the human food chain.

GM crops under trial in India and which involve the Bt gene include tobacco being developed by the government's Central Tobacco Research Institute in southern Andhra Pradesh. Activists also dread is the splicing of BT genes into staples like potato and rice - potato at the Central Potato Research Institute in Himachal Pradesh, and rice at the Bose Institute in Calcutta and at the IARI station in Meghalaya.

 Ranjit Devraj is a correspondent with Inter Press Service, a global news resource faciliating south-south and south-north dialogue on important economic, social, environmental, and other issues. IPS is distributed by - - Global Information Network

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