Monsanto patent under cloud as Bt cotton prone to pink bollworm

Keshav Raj Kranthi, said that he had been consulted by the Union Agriculture Ministry on whether the pink bollworm had developed resistance to Bt cotton grown in India — to which he had given an affirmative reply.

Written by Vivek Deshpande | Nagpur | Published:March 8, 2016 2:37 am

THE Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) has confirmed that Bt cotton incorporating Monsanto’s proprietary Bollgard-II technology has developed susceptibility to pink bollworm insect pests. This reported susceptibility is what has also apparently led the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion to serve notice to Mahyco Monsanto Biotech India Ltd (MMB) — the licensing arm of the US life sciences giant — calling upon it to explain why the patent for the technology should not be revoked.

Keshav Raj Kranthi, director of the Nagpur-based institute under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, said that he had been consulted by the Union Agriculture Ministry specifically on whether the pink bollworm (Pectinophora gossypiella) had developed resistance to Bt cotton grown in India — to which he had given an affirmative reply.

Bollgard-II technology, which involves introduction of Cry1Ac and Cry2Ab genes from Bacillus thuringiensis, a soil bacterium, into cotton plants, is claimed to confer resistance against three insect pests: American bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera), pink bollworm and spotted bollworm (Earias vittella).

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According to Kranthi, CICR’s surveys had pointed to the damage to the cotton crop from pink bollworm attacks as “particularly severe” in Gujarat last year, with an estimated 9 per cent yield loss. Though the infestation of the pest was noticed in a few pockets of Gujarat in 2014, it was found to have spread to wider areas in 2015.

Section 64 of the Indian Patent Act 1970 provides for revocation of patents, including on grounds that “the invention, so far as claimed in any claim of the complete specification, is not useful”. It is not clear, however, whether such provisions can be extended to the diminished efficacy, if any, of an invention.

Monsanto had originally introduced the Bollgard technology based on a single Cry1Ac gene. The first pink bollworm attack was reported in 2009 on Bt cotton incorporating this single gene technology, while being localised to a single district in Gujarat.

Subsequently, MMB pushed the second-generation Bollgard-II technology based on two genes, which was patented in India in 2009 and also claimed to offer better protection against all the three bollworms. By 2012, the original Bollgard technology had been replaced completely by Bollgard-II Bt hybrids.

What explains this rapid development of pink bollworm resistance to Bollgard-II technology in India? Kranthi attributed this to factors “that are unique to India”. One of the reasons is that Bollgard-II technology has been incorporated in long-duration hybrids of 7-9 months, providing “constant food in the form of tender seeds in green bolls for proliferation of the worm in multiple cycles”. In other countries, the crop duration is shorter at 5-6 months.