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Cotton, mustard, two GM debates

On one, government must not give in to armtwisting by the MNC. On the other, safety and productivity remain a concern.

Written by Vijay Chauthaiwale | Published: August 31, 2016 12:02 am
mustard crop, mustard genetic engineering, GM Cotton, Cotton crop,  gm mustard crop, gm mustard, govt gm mustard, genetic modified seeds, India news 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.

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.

The writer, a molecular biologist, is in-charge of the foreign affairs department of the BJP.

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  1. J
    Aug 31, 2016 at 10:08 pm
    GMO corn in the US is only used for feeding hogs. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Since Indians don't eat pork, other than brahmins😜, those brahmin Mafia want to make non-pork eaters also have GMO food. On one single day, approval was given for 5 different GMO by just a stroke of pen. All those who were involved and took bribe from Monsanto were Brahmin dogs.
    1. A
      Aug 30, 2016 at 11:20 pm
      Good points are made by writer. When GM seeds affects the right of farmers for ownership and preservation of seeds, there is one subsequent affect as well. 90% of cotton seeds which are monololized removes other seeds from market and create dependency of farmers on company. Intellectual rights should have limited period of application.
      1. R
        R mackenzie
        Aug 31, 2016 at 4:01 am
        If Indian farmers are happy with non GM seeds then no-one can stop them using them. It is a matter of choice. If ninety percent use GM seed it makes no difference to the availability of non GM seed. Fears of multinational dominance of seeds is simply a fashion item to be worn beside comfortable leftist opinions. Let the farmers decide their own business affairs. They know more about it than city based armchair pundits.
        1. D
          Sep 1, 2016 at 6:37 am
          Shri vijay ji thanks for such clear vision regarding gm. We BKS is also not against any new technology but it should be tested widely.And it's socio-economic aspect should be consider before release of such technology which are irreversible and long effect on environment.lt;br/gt; Now the our farmers are using bt cotton because they are not having alternative. This year in Punjab andHariyana area under non bt increased significantly.lt;br/gt;You are against the gm in food, it's OK.lt;br/gt;But i think you known the cotton seed oil is also used as edible oil. Then what will be happened with those ppl who are force to consume such contaminated oil? lt;br/gt;There are so aspects regarding the gm technology that we have to answer.lt;br/gt;Particularly MNC like Monosanto do not hesitate to use any means for their interest. They used Noble Prize winners for that also.lt;br/gt;Now white fly becoming major pest in bt and just two days back agriculture department of karnataka issued notification to use insecticides to control it. As we are having IPM technology ,but we are not using it honestly. Farmers are on the mercy of agri companies irrespective of deshi or MNC.
          1. D
            Dilnavaz Variava
            Aug 31, 2016 at 2:48 pm
            This is one of the first sensible essments I have seen in Indian Express on GM technologies. I have no vested interest for or against GM in agriculture, but ever since I was on a Govt of Maharashtra Expert Committee on Agriculture I have been in touch both with the published materials and farmers. GM technology gives an initial boost but there are multiple problems later, and the author has touched on some of these. Non GM seeds are virtually out of the market because the companies and the traders find these far more profitable. The issue of Herbicide Tolerant GM crops - and the mustard though not clified as such has been developed with herbicide tolerance genes - means increased of herbicides , in which the MNCs have an interest, Globally this is linked to health risks and growth of herbicide resistant weeds and increases in herbicides. in India it is also linked to loss of income for the poor - especially women - who make a livelihood from weeding.
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