Earlier this month, Monsanto, the world's largest seed company, admitted that its genetically engineered "Bt" (bacillus thuringiensis) cotton seed wasn't all that farmers in India had hoped. Reports coming in from four districts of India's Gujarat state indicated that the company's seeds had not been able to prevent a pest called the pink bollworm from attacking cotton crops. Activists hoping to protect the country's biodiversity and its farmers from excessive dependence on multinational seed companies hailed the news as a victory in the latest round of an increasingly shrill public debate on the role of GM crops. About 90% of India's cotton is based on Bt cotton seed; Monsanto and its licensees are the dominant suppliers of those seeds.
The anti-GM camp had reason to cheer a few weeks earlier as well, when Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh abruptly put a moratorium on an insect-resistant variety of aubergine seed, known as Bt brinjal, on the eve of its much-hyped launch. But the battle is far from over. Shortly after the moratorium was declared, the government also made overtures to GM advocates by insisting that it did not want to shut the doors on the industry. Noting biotechnology's importance for "higher agricultural productivity and ensuring food security," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called for additional studies on the environmental and health effects of GM crops and promised to set up a national biotechnology authority to stimulate investment in seed development.
Fact vs. Fiction
As the Bt brinjal episode highlights, using GM seeds -- often referred to as "transgenics" -- to increase food production and lower production costs is fraught with controversy. "In the debate over biotech crops, differentiating fact from fiction is not easy," according to a paper on the economic impact of transgeniccrops published last year by the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C. "The debate has been confused by the influence of rigid, absolutist views (both supportive of and opposed to biotech crops) about the role of science in society, combined with a general ignorance of science."
The global battle lines in the controversy over GM seeds were drawn more than a decade ago in Europe, where strong anti-GM activist groups, including the likes of Greenpeace, have successfully lobbied against GM seeds, claiming that they are unsafe for human consumption and weaken or destroy other seeds and crops. But GM seeds -- for cotton, maize, soybean and rice, among others -- have steadily found their way into the agriculture of a number of countries, including the U.S., Canada, China, South Africa, Brazil and Argentina. On March 2, after a 12-year wait, the European Union approved the cultivation of a GM potato and the import of three types of maize.
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a nonprofit that monitors the use of GM crops, there are more than 14 million farmers in 25 countries producing GM crops -- an 80-fold increase since 1996, when GM seeds were first commercialized. In 2009, there were 134 million hectares of "biotech" crops worldwide, representing an 8% increase year on year.
"The clear message is that small farmers are getting substantial benefits" from transgenic crops, says Carl E. Pray, professor with the agricultural, food and resource economics department at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who is currently studying the impact on small farmers of GM crops in South Africa, China and India. "The gain in terms of higher yields or reduced pesticide use is usually a lot more than the increase in the cost of the seeds."
As for India, its US$1.5 billion seed industry is the fifth largest in the world, with the private sector accounting for three quarters of it, of which Missouri-based Monsanto controls more than 60%. Commercial seeds -- including "hybrids" that combine different crop varieties to achieve higher yields and pest resistance -- account for 15% of the country's total supply, with farm-saved seeds making up the rest.
Over recent years, the seed industry has been encouraged by Bt cotton, which was first commercialized in India in 2002 and continues to be the only type of Bt crop allowed to grow in the country. Bt, which introduces a gene into seeds to disrupt the bollworm insect that plagues cotton crops, has lifted India's cotton production from 190 million bales in 2003 to 310 million bales currently, according to Satish Kagliwal, managing director of Nath Biogene, a seed-manufacturing company in Maharashtra's Aurangabad city, which sells a Bt cotton seed called Fusion and so-called "hybrid" seeds for a variety of other crops. "The same thing can be repeated in other [non-cotton] crops," he says. In the case of aubergine, Bt brinjal would attack the fruit and shoot borer insects that wreak havoc on those crops.
A Growing Problem: Is There a Future in India for Genetically Modified Seeds?
News Mar 12, 2010