Indian research council in GM crop scandal
Monday 17 December 2012
A committee set up to investigate a scandal surrounding India's first public-sector GM crop (a genetically modified cotton plant), have indicted scientists involved for deliberately misleading regulators.
The crop in question is Bikaneri Narma-Bt cotton, known as BN-Bt cotton. The plant was designed to kill insect pests by releasing Bt toxins and released for sale in 2009. It was developed by a number of research organisations working with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). Developers claimed to have used a novel gene sequence created 'in-house,' however, the cotton seeds were withdrawn from sale in December 2011, after they were found to contain a gene patented in the United States by agribusiness Monsanto.
The committee investigating the scandal was set up by ICAR itself. In its report, published last week, the committee accused ICAR and two research institutions involved in producing the crop of "scientific, institutional and ethical failure." The committee euphemistically said scientists at the institutions in New Delhi, Nagpur and Dharwad had 'contaminated' the seeds with Monsanto's MON-531 gene and claimed to have created a new gene, BNLA106.
Although evidence of another gene in one of the early samples of BN-Bt was present, the panel of investigators said they could not prove that this was BNLA106 and requested further tests be carried out.
The panel also discovered evidence of a cover-up, suggesting the cotton's developers were aware of the 'contamination'. It also indicted two scientists for conflict of interest, as they had been involved in both developing the GM seed and later approving its commercial release.
The seeds had been released to compete against GM seeds sold by agribusinesses; the publicly-developed BN-Bt seeds were available at a fraction of the price and seed from the crops could be saved and reused, which major agribusinesses do not allow. However, seed company Mahyco, a partner of Monsanto in India, complained that the BN-Bt contained a gene developed by Monsanto.
However, the gene in question is used widely in GM crops sold in India as the 1985 patent on MON-531 has expired.
The scandal raises questions about the regulation of GM crops and biosecurity in one of the world's major agricultural producers, where the technology is still highly controversial.
Strong voices oppose GM crops in India and maintain that patent laws should not be applied to seeds. Delhi-based sustainable food expert Dr Vandana Shiva has said that current trends in industrial agriculture, including patenting seeds present a "serious risk to the future of the world's seed and food security," as they limit growers' access to seeds, either by copyrighting genetically modified seeds as new organisms or protecting a certain breeding method, which prevents the saving and exchange of seeds.
She maintains that, in addition to the food security implications, locally adapted and culturally important crop varieties are suffering as a result of the use of patent laws.
In the UK, sustainable farming advocates have reacted strongly to the unequivocal support for GM shown by Environment minister Owen Paterson during an interview last week. Several interest groups have warned of a potential industry-backed push to introduce GM crops into the UK; although EU regulations covering GM remain strict and the devolved governments of Wales and Scotland oppose the technology, the Westminster government is a supporter of GM within Europe.
Soil Association Scotland director Laura Stewart responded to Mr Paterson's assertions that the introduction of GM crops would benefit the UK, and that concerns over the technology are "humbug." She said, "Studies have demonstrated that GM crops do not offer a sustainable solution. Instead, they lock farmers into depending on costly inputs from a handful of powerful chemical companies and, undoubtedly, bring the production of food further under corporate control."
Summarising a number of reservations held over GM crops, Stewart added, "Instead of reducing pesticide use, data from the US suggests that more potent chemicals are used on these crops than on non-GM alternatives… Once GM crops are out in the environment, they cannot be contained, so they deny that choice. Meanwhile, regulators don't undertake good enough safety checks or even ask whether new technologies are in the public interest."