What next after Bt Cotton?

NEW DELHI, JUNE 16. Mahyco-Monsanto's insect resistant Bt Cotton could become India's first approved genetically-modified crop, but what next? Although a clutch of companies and research institutes are engaged in transgenic work on a variety of GM crops, the answer probably is not a lot, not in the near future anyway.

As things stand, the only product which has reached the open field trial stage is the hybrid mustard developed by the New Delhi-based Proagro PGS, now part of the multinational Aventis group. The first company to research GM plants in India, Proagro purchased GM mustard seeds from Belgium in 1994 and back- crossed them with an Indian variety.

After the limited trials were completed, the company received permission for multi-locational open field trials in 1999. A final round of field trials in 52 locations in five States is likely to get under way this year, and if everything goes according to the company's plan, it should be ready to seek final environmental clearance from the GEAC next year.

According to Mr. Arvind Kapur, managing director of Nunhems Proagro Seeds Ltd, the transgenic mustard promises a yield of 20- 25 per cent more than average. With around 6 million hectares under mustard cultivation (much of this in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh), there is a potentially huge market for the product in which barstar, barnase and bar genes from soil bacteria have been inserted.

The company was conducting glass house and limited field experiments for tomato, brinjal, cauliflower and cabbage but has suspended the work. A part of the reason could be internal. Doubts about the overall environment for GM crops in India - which is determined by public misgivings and confusing regulatory mechanisms - appear to have resulted in second thoughts about the wisdom of persisting with high investments at this juncture.

The Starlink controversy, which affected Aventis US, could be another reason. Starlink, a genetically-modified version of corn was approved as animal feed; clearance for human consumption depended on the resolution of some doubts about its allergenicity.

Meanwhile, last year, there was an uproar when the Starlink gene protein was found in American-made taco shells. Apparently, somehow - possibly either through cross pollination or through mixing in silos or during transportation - corn had become `contaminated'. The development became a flashpoint in the ongoing battle between environmental groups and the biotechnology industry. Complaints from consumers and litigation resulted in Aventis coughing up some $ 100 millions as compensation.

Although the industry maintained that the controversy had little do with science and safety, claiming it was virtually impossible for a protein completely new to the human diet to cause an already existing allergy, the Starlink controversy made it acutely aware of the damages from possible liabilities.

While Proagro is among the few private companies involved in GM crops/food, much of the transgenic research in India is conducted by universities and research institutes in Coimbatore, Shillong, New Delhi and Shimla.

But a record of the major Indian developments on the transgenic front suggests that apart from Mahyco's Bt Cotton and Proagro's hybrid mustard, we may be still many years away from the commercialisation of other crops. According to Dr. Gurumurti Natarajan, an agri-business consultant, a major reason for this that although India has developed a regulatory framework for administering GM crops, it has yet to pass legislation relating to plant variety protection, biodiversity and intellectual property rights. ``If India is going to benefit from GM crops, it must lose no time in putting such legislation in place.''