Exit Monsanto, Enter GM Mustard?
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 31 Aug 2016 2 Comments

It seems, after nearly a decade-and-a-half long play on Indian cotton fields, Monsanto, the world’s biggest agricultural biotech company, is finally readying to exit India’s cotton fields. This is what one sees on the surface. The reason being, it is not ready to sacrifice its “new” technology, as touted, with the “Round Up Ready Flex” technology in India.


Before one goes further on the topic, it is important to point out some very crucial and disturbing scientific facts, which many in India, including cotton scientists, farmers, policy makers and other activists may simply not be aware of. Round Up is a Monsanto generated selective weedicide (a glyphosate-based formulation).


Glyphosate is a most carcinogenic chemical, banned by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for its carcinogenic trait and can cause autism and many other chronic human diseases. There is a raging controversy in the US over Glyphosate, and, on balance, the prevalent view is that it is most harmful to human health.


The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) might simply not know this or pretends not to know it. The “Round Up Ready Soybean” is the best example. The way in which this technology works is that the plant imparts genetic resistance to a specific pest, for instance the American Pink Boll worm, as in cotton; when sprayed with the weedicide, the latter only kills the weeds and not the main crop. Commercially speaking, Monsanto hopes to sell both the GM crop seed and also the chemical - glyphosate based - herbicide along with it. Monsanto is the biggest manufacturer of Round Up herbicide in the world. It is like killing two birds with one shot.   


The company has withdrawn an application seeking approval for its next generation of genetically modified cotton seeds in India, a major escalation in a long-running dispute between New Delhi and the world’s biggest seed maker. A letter sent by Monsanto’s local partner in India, the Mahyco Monsanto Biotech Ltd (MMBL), the conglomerate’s biggest market outside the Americas, strongly objects to a government proposal that would force Monsanto to share its technology with local seed companies.


The company is also at loggerheads with India over how much it can charge for its genetically modified cotton seeds, for the “trait value” (resistance to the dreaded American pink bollworm) which is costing it tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue every year.


The unprecedented decision to pull out the application could set back Monsanto’s efforts to introduce its new seed, called Bollgard II Roundup Ready Flex Technology, for years and lead to further losses. It will also ratchet up pressure on the Indian government, as it undermines Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to make the country look more attractive to foreign investors.


It could also hurt Indian cotton farmers. The new seed variety helps fight against weeds which sap the cotton crop of vital nutrients and depress yields. However, a Monsanto spokesman declined to comment on the withdrawal. Also, a spokesman for the environment ministry, which had the application before it, was not available for comment.


In a letter, dated July 5, MMBL, Monsanto’s technology partner in India, singled out a government proposal, mooted in May, that would require Monsanto to share its proprietary technology. After protests by Monsanto and other global seed companies, the government temporarily withdrew the order and decided to seek feedback from stakeholders. It is now evaluating the feedback.


Mahyco said in the letter, the proposal “alarmed us and raised serious concerns about the protection of intellectual property rights.” Mahyco also asked the regulator, GEAC, to return data and other material submitted by it as part of the application. The regulator has done that, a government official said.


India first allowed GM cotton cultivation in 2002 by approving Monsanto’s single gene Bollgard I technology. It is important to recount that the Bollgard I cotton seed sold at Rs 1950 per 500 gram packet to Indian cotton farmers and at only US $ 2 to Chinese farmers, the Indian Rupee equivalent working out to less than Rs 100 at the time. The company reaped a very huge profit, in excess of Rs 600 crores, from the sale in India.  


It is against the above scenario that the AP Government came to the fore and clamped the sale price at Rs 750. The other seed companies using Monsanto technology had to follow suit.


New Delhi approved the double gene Bollgard II in 2006, helping transform India into the world’s top cotton producer and second-largest exporter of the fibre as output jumped four-fold. But, over time, other pests, apart from the American pink Bollworm, surfaced. White fly took over. The total devastation of cotton crop in Punjab, Western Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan is there for everyone to see. Hundreds of cotton farmers took their lives to escape the clutches of unscrupulous money lenders. Last year, it became a national scandal in Punjab.


Bollgard II, introduced in 2006, is slowly becoming vulnerable to bollworms, experts say, and, like any technology, has a limited shelf life.


Still, more than 41 million GM cotton seed packets were sold last year, earning royalties of Rs 6.5 billion ($97 million) for Monsanto.


Mahyco applied to the GEAC for approval of the new GM seed some time in 2007. The application was in the final stages of a tedious and time-consuming process, which included years of field trials.


In its letter to the GEAC, Mahyco said it would seek to revive the application for Bollgard II Roundup Ready Flex “at a suitable time.”


However, a government official said there were no guarantees it would be allowed to do so if it changed its mind in the future and would likely have to start afresh.


In the author’s perception, the “withdrawal” letter is a pressure tactic. However, it is heartening to note that cotton researchers, including the National Central Institute For Cotton Research (CICR) is confident of meeting Monsanto’s challenge


What next on the GM Horizon?


Now that the Monsanto-Mahyco Bt cotton is fading out, the next crop that comes under the scanner is the much-hyped GM mustard. The variety DMH-11 has been developed by Delhi University. While the promoters are making a strong pitch for the same, there is much opposition by activists, including concerned scientists, not to permit the GEAC to give it the green signal.


The reasons are varied. For one, the bio safety data is still shrouded in mystery. It is not kept at the disposal of public knowledge, while there is there is now, on account of public pressure, an assurance that the bio safety data would be made available online for public comments next week.


The yield differential


Though the promoters of DMH-11 claim that it is superior in its yielding capacity, activists against GM mustard contest the data. To be realistic, field trials all over the northern states where mustard crop is the main oilseed crop, must be carried out, which has not been done.


Even if the centre gives the green signal to the GM mustard, individual states have the right to veto the decision as agriculture is a state subject. States like Odisha and Kerala have since some years been “GM Free” states.


Post script


As a consequence of the nearly a decade old on-going war on seed price, the National Seed Association of India (NSAI) split vertically on Friday, with Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Dupont Pioneer, Dow Agro Sciences (all multinationals), along with Metahelix (Rallis India arm), Shriram Bioseeds and Namdhari forming a parallel grouping called Federation of Seed Industry of India (FSII).


The contest is centred on the decision to fix the “trait” value. The MNCs and other Indian affiliates want a “free hand” in fixing the trait value while the NSAI wants a government control.


There is a parallel here with pharma products. A “free market” does not mean that the company producing the product can fleece the consumer. That is what the Union agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh said some months ago when the “trait” value subject was going back and forth. The seed industry is a Rs 15000 crore annual business. The MNCs are eyeing a big share of this. Can New Delhi sit and watch when a free-for-all mindset prevails?


The author was formerly Professor National Science Foundation, The Royal Society, Belgium and Senior Fellow, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, The Federal Republic of Germany

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