First, an important disclaimer: This commentary is a reflection of my personal views as a molecular biologist and scientist involved in high-end innovation. It does not represent views of RSS, BJP or Indian government.
In principle, I am not against GM crops but I am against GM food. As an example, it means that in principle, I am not against Bt cotton but I am against GM mustard. Last week, 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 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.
I appreciate the fact that any new ground-breaking technology or product is a result of significant investments, several failures and a long gestation period and therefore, needs to be protected from illegal copying. This is typically achieved by protecting intellectual property worldwide and enforcing it by legal and statutory means. In order to recover these investments, earn a profit and reinvest in newer technology, there is bound to be a price differential between patented products and non-patented generic products. In such cases, the consumer is willing to pay a higher price for the proprietary product only if it fulfils an “unmet need” and/or offers advantages over existing products and technologies.
Bt cotton was launched in India without appropriate regulatory oversight. But that’s the past. Today, the fact that more than 90 per cent Indian farmers are using Bt cotton seeds, shows that farmers are happy with its advantages over non-GM varieties. Several Indian seed companies sell Bt cotton seeds, all of them use technology licensed from Monsanto and pay close to 30 per cent royalty on every packet.
Angered by the government’s decision to slash prices and royalties, Monsanto has decided not to introduce a newer variety of Bt cotton, taking undue advantage of its monopolistic position. First of all, 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. On the contrary, one study in the US shows — under laboratory conditions — resistance of pests to Bollgard II has gone up from two per cent to 50 per cent in just four years. Secondly, linear and temporal data comparing the two seed varieties in Indian conditions is not available. In addition, 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.
While innovators should be compensated for their intellectual property, 30 per cent royalty is unreasonable. In most cases, such a 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. 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. There is no reason why Monsanto cannot follow the same practice and still make a profit.
Making new technology inaccessible to Indian farmers is clearly a case of arm-twisting. Indian farmers are innovative enough to maximise yields from existing varieties. The government should not succumb to such pressure tactics.
The case of GM food is totally different. Any food item, once available in the market, becomes unrestricted and is likely to be consumed by all groups — from children to the elderly, from the healthy to the ill, by pregnant women and lactating mothers. I doubt if the safety of GM foods for such a wide population can be adequately determined. GM food 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 food to the market.
The specific case of GM mustard has an added complication. As the technology is “swadeshi” — developed by a government of India research institute — no one can call it an imperialistic design by multinationals. While I would like to congratulate the scientists who developed GM mustard, there is a big question mark on the quality of this technology on account of the yield. It is claimed that GM mustard will have 25-30 per cent higher yield than non-GM mustard. A 30 per cent increase in yield in controlled conditions is unlikely to result in a significant change in field conditions. Even to show 30 per cent higher yield in controlled conditions, the sample size needs to be very large to be statistically significant.
And even if it is statistically significant in trials, material benefit over existing varieties in a wide spectrum of soil compositions, rainfall patterns, environmental conditions etc will be a mammoth task to substantiate.
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