Insights into Editorial: Cotton, mustard, two GM debates
Recently, Monsanto withdrew its application for permission to launch its latest variety of Bt cotton (Bollgard II), in opposition to the Indian government’s directive to put an overall price cap on Bt cotton seeds and a cap on the royalty which Monsanto earns on every packet. Almost simultaneously, there is news that domestically developed GM mustard has moved one step ahead in the approval process.
Why Monsanto’s withdrawal would make little or no difference?
- While there are clear advantages to using Bt cotton seeds over non-Bt seeds, there are no such advantages with the newer Bollgard II over the existing Bollgard I variety. According to a study in the US — under laboratory conditions — resistance of pests to Bollgard II has gone up from 2% to 50% in just four years.
- Linear and temporal data comparing the two seed varieties in Indian conditions is also not available.
- Once Bollgard II is introduced, Monsanto will likely charge a premium over the current price of Bollgard I and withdraw the latter from the market (which Monsanto has done in other countries), compelling farmers to pay more for a product whose incremental benefits are questionable and whose lack of efficacy in long-term insect resistance is well documented.
Has the government done the right thing by putting a cap on royalty?
Yes, say experts. According to them, while innovators should be compensated for their intellectual property, 30% royalty charged by Monsanto is unreasonable. In many countries, royalty is in single digits and it reduces over a period of time. It is assumed that the reduced percentage of royalties can be partially compensated by an increase in volume. Even in the drug industry, there are examples of lower pricing for patented drugs than developing countries, partly due to affordability and partly due to potentially high volumes. Hence, there is no reason why Monsanto cannot follow the same practice and still make a profit.
What is a GM crop?
A GM or transgenic crop is a plant that has a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology.
For example, a GM crop can contain a gene(s) that has been artificially inserted instead of the plant acquiring it through pollination. The resulting plant is said to be “genetically modified”.
India’s experience with GM crops:
India now has the world’s fourth largest GM crop acreage on the strength of Bt cotton (It is the only genetically modified crop allowed in the country).
- The introduction of Bt cotton has been both highly successful and controversial. Cotton yield more than doubled in the first decade since its introduction in 2002. At the same time it was also shadowed by controversy, with a tangle of pricing and intellectual property rights (IPR) issues followed by government price interventions and litigation.
- An agreement to develop Bt brinjal was signed in 2005 between Mahyco—American agricultural biotech giant Monsanto’s Indian Bt cotton partner—and two Indian agricultural universities.
- Following the study of biosafety data and field trials by two expert committees, Bt brinjal was cleared for commercialization by India’s top biotech regulator, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, in 2009. But nothing came of it, with moratoriums imposed by then government following opposition from civil society groups and brinjal-growing states.
Advantages of GM crops:
- Higher crop yields.
- Reduced farm costs.
- Increased farm profit.
- Improvement in health and the environment.
Arguments against GM crops:
- There is no clarity about impact of GM crops on human health and environment. The scientific community itself seems uncertain about this. It is also argued that once GM crops are introduced risks outweigh benefits. Also, the technology is irreversible and uncontrollable.
- Introducing genetically modified versions of various crops could be a major threat to the vast number of domestic and wild varieties of crops. In fact, globally, there is a clear view that GM crops must not be introduced in centres of origin and diversity.
- There is also a potential for pests to evolve resistance to the toxins produced by GM crops and the risk of these toxins affecting nontarget organisms.
- There is also the danger of unintentionally introducing allergens and other anti-nutrition factors in foods.
What needs to be done?
- A precautionary approach towards any open release of GMOs is necessary.
- India has mega biodiversity hotspots like the Eastern Himalayas and the Western Ghats which are rich in biodiversity yet ecologically very sensitive. Hence it is necessary to be careful before introducing GM crops in these sensitive areas.
- Field trials in India, in which the State governments have a say, must ensure that there are sufficient safeguards against such violations.
- If GM food is allowed to be sold to consumers, they must have the right to know what they are buying, and labelling should be made mandatory.
- A strong regulatory authority should also be established for overseeing matters related to GM crops.
GM crops have been gaining acceptance. However, their use still remains highly skewed. Only 29 countries allow commercial cultivation of GM crops while a similar number also allow their import. And most of the 170 million hectares under GM crops are in the USA, Brazil, Argentina, India and China. Moreover 98% of GM cultivation falls under four main crops: soybean, maize, cotton and canola. Experts also say that GM technologies will continue to focus on these crops for some time.
Introduction of genetically modified cotton in India enhanced both output and yield. But this initial experience has not been followed by the introduction of GM food crops on account of alarmist protests.
It is also true that dependence on GM crops is a risky proposition. Hence, India needs to tap the potential of other technologies. As pointed out by a parliamentary committee India has better options for increasing productivity, like molecular breeding and integrated pest management, that can serve it in good stead for the time being.
There is a need fora cautious approach — one that fosters scientific inquiry, allows for scrutiny and is underpinned by regulation. Enacting a comprehensive law that covers all aspects of GM crops should be a priority. GM crops should be tested with the same rigour as any new drug to be used for chronic diseases. Unless such a foolproof mechanism is in place, one should be sceptical about introducing GM crops.