Cotton and clearance

WITH THE APPROVAL granted for the commercialisation of Bt cotton, India has made a tentative — and arguably long overdue — entry into the age of agri-biotechnology. This is a significant milestone in a country, which has often professed its commitment to agri-biotech as a technology of great promise, but had seemed slow and clumsy about rendering this commitment into a programme of action. Bt cotton, the seeds of which acquire a pest-resistant character with the introduction of a gene derived from a common soil bacterium, is India's first officially approved transgenic crop. But in a world in which the area covered by genetically modified crops is growing rapidly (from next to nothing to a staggering 100-plus million acres in just six years), it is unlikely to be the last. The clearance accorded by the GEAC, the high-level committee constituted under the Union Environment Ministry, is restricted to Bt cotton developed by one seed company (Mahyco). But viewed from a more general perspective, it is an affirmation of the principle that transgenic seeds will be approved as long as they satisfy the procedures laid down in the regulatory process. Transgenic mustard will come up for approval before the GEAC shortly, but there are a host of other genetically modified plants which are in different stages of the regulatory/approval process.

Despite having the largest acreage in the world under cotton, India compares extremely poorly in terms of cotton production. Over the past few years, cotton farmers have been plagued by abysmally low yields, higher cultivation costs due to greater use of pesticides and devastating attacks by bollworm. While other major cotton producing countries such as the U.S. and China (which has approved six varieties of Bt cotton seeds) have benefited by embracing Bt technology, India's cotton farmers have been led to commit suicide in alarming numbers and watch helplessly as imports of cheaper and better quality cotton continue to rise. It was against this backdrop that cotton farmers in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh flouted the law by planting an illicit variety of Bt cotton, which, although much more expensive, promised better yields and a drastic reduction in the consumption of expensive pesticides.

The use of Bt cotton has resulted in a substantial reduction in pesticide consumption in the U.S., China and elsewhere. Around one-third of environmentally hazardous chemical pesticides used in Indian agriculture is estimated to be spent on fighting bollworm in cotton — the very same complex of pests which Bt cotton is resistant to. It is surprising that those inclined to sound an undue environmental alarm over the introduction of Bt cotton ignore or fail to take note of this. At the same time, all new technologies contain an element of risk and biotechnology is not free from it. This is why clearance for new agri-biotech products is invariably conditional. Among other conditions it has laid down, the GEAC is reported to have directed farmers to set aside a portion of their land for conventional or non-genetically modified varieties (as a refugia). The refugia are meant to prevent, or at any rate retard, the onset of Bt toxin resistance among bollworm. The refugia strategy is used widely abroad, but it is doubtful how effectively it can be implemented in a country such as India where holdings are small and where farmers may be reluctant to sacrifice a portion of their high-yielding Bt cotton to grow reserves of conventional cotton in order to encourage non-resistant pests. But such concerns should not detract from the overall message transmitted by the GEAC's decision. In a climate in which serious doubts had begun to develop about India's commitment to harvesting the benefits of agri-biotechnology, the approval of Bt cotton sends out a belated but nevertheless positive signal.

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