INDIA’S “PUBLIC SECTOR INDIGENOUS GM COTTON” A SCIENTIFIC FRAUD:
Coalition for a GM-Free India demands immediate stopping of all public sector transgenic research and an independent enquiry and action against fraudulent scientists.
New Delhi, December 30, 2011: 2011 ends with a big blot to the Indian scientific community, as was the case in 2010 too. The much-hyped public sector Bt cotton lines (Bikaneri Narma Bt variety and NHH-44 Bt hybrid) touted as the “first indigenous public sector-bred GM crop in India” developed by Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur (CICR) and University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad (UAS) along with Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) is actually found to have a Bt gene originally patented by Monsanto. The ICAR had to withdraw the production of these ‘indigenous’ GM cotton seeds, based on this development. In effect the Indian biotechnologists, supported with enormous amounts of taxpayers’ money doing research on developing indigenous “biotechnology products” have misled the nation by passing off the Monsanto technology as their own, the Coalition for a GM-Free India stated. The Coalition demanded that the Government stop all transgenic research in the public sector immediately, setup a high-level independent inquiry into the current case as well as all other research projects. It also demanded that this issue be seen as an act of corruption and fraud and severe deterrent action be taken against all the institutions and scientists involved.
In India, the majority of transgenic products in the R&D pipeline are from public sector institutions. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s “network project on transgenics” had a budgetary provision of Rs 100 crores in the XI Plan.
The Bt cotton in question is the Bikaneri Narma (BN) Bt (variety) and the NHH-44 Bt (hybrid) expressing Bt Cry 1Ac protein. The developers CICR & UAS claimed that BN Bt carries the cry1Ac (Truncated and codon-modified) gene which ‘is very similar to the Cry 1Ac toxin expressed by MON 531 event developed by M/s Monsanto as well as event 1 of IIT, Kharagpur’, both of which are already under commercial cultivation. A CICR newsletter (Vol.24, No.2, Apr-June 2008) soon after the GEAC approval for transgenic BN Bt claimed that the development of this Bt cotton was initiated under the World-Bank-funded NATP from 2000 onwards. The Bt cry1AC gene in this instance was supposed to have been developed by the NRCPB of the IARI along with CICR and the transfer into popular cultivars is supposed to be taken up by UAS-Dharwad.
During deliberations in the GEAC about this, the members first gave approval for large-scale field trials (LSTs) during the GEAC meeting on April 2, 2008 and then in the next meeting on 2nd May 2008 reviewed the decision and gave approval for commercialization of BN Bt without conducting LSTs. The rationale was that since the seeds of BN Bt could be saved by farmers, a large scale field trial is tantamount to commercial release! However one year after its much publicized release BN Bt was withdrawn from the market without any explanation and no reports were made available about its performance till then. The same Bt construct was used to develop hybrid Bt cotton, namely NHH 44. YUVA and Hamara Beej Abhiyan, two constituents of the Coalition for a GM-Free India, brought out a report in 2010, on “Performance of CICR’s Bt Cotton in 2009 – a survey report” (available at http://indiagminfo.org/?
page_id=238) which showed that BN Bt had failed to perform in farmers’ fields and the claims were belied. The worse thing was that there was no accountability fixed on anyone for this failure. In this report released in October 2010 itself, the Coalition demanded that ‘CICR come out in the open to state exactly what the problem is which made BN Bt seed supply vanish from the market exactly one season after its entry’ (pp.11).
Now it has come to light through an RTI that there is nothing indigenous about this Bt construct used by CICR & UAS and it has Monsanto’s cry1Ac gene. As per news media stories, the NARS appears to be defending this episode by explaining it away as “contamination”. It is interesting to note that scientists who have rubbished “contamination” concerns expressed by civil society groups and others both for their environmental and IPR implications, are resorting to this phenomenon as their explanation now!
This raises a few pertinent questions:
· How is it that the regulators who “rigorously” evaluated the product could not correctly identify the gene construct used? It puts to question the capabilities of the regulators.
· Here it must also be highlighted that the then Director of CICR, Dr.Khadi was also a member of GEAC, a clear case of conflict of interest.
· If it is indeed a case of contamination and the seed production had to be stopped given that Monsanto has proprietary rights over the genes and technology, what lies in store for all the other GM crops in the pipeline since contamination is inevitable?
· Is it contamination or is it a scientific fraud related to incapability with regard to indigenous technology?
· Who owns BN Bt cotton and NHH 44 Bt cotton now? Have the Indian biotechnologists gratuitously gifted these to Monsanto through this action?
· Is this all the country gets after big ticket investments on GM technology ignoring viable and safer mechanisms to deal with pests, diseases and climate threat?
This episode also highlights that the IPR issues related to transgenic technologies and the assumption by the Indian scientific community that they can use technologies patented by Monsanto and its ilk needs a serious re-think.
The Indian regulators, public sector scientists and NARS institutions are intent on promoting GM technologies to the exclusion of any other options despite serious evidence on the biosafety hazards connected with transgenics. In the light of this fiasco, claims about enormous indigenous capabilities (in this field) sound hollow. Such scientific frauds raise the question about how far the biotechnology scientists and regulators will go to force GM technologies into our agriculture and what motivates them. Why should the public be trusting these scientists who do not hestitate to resort to fraudulent practices?
Unfortunately this is not the first case of scientific fraud that the nation is witnessing. Last year witnessed the six premier Science Academies using plagiarized material to recommend and promote the release of Bt brinjal. Despite the report being dismissed by the then Minister for Environment & Forests as lacking scientific rigour, the Academies merely revised the section on Bt brinjal a little and put it back in the public domain claiming that they stand by their conclusions. There was no enquiry into the incident, no explanation about how it happened and no action taken against any entity. A clear demonstration of the contempt in which the scientific community holds the nation and the public, says the Coalition for a GM-Free India. It is interesting to note that Dr P Ananda Kumar of NRCPB is one of the lead ‘protagonists’ in these two scientific scandals. Further, Dr K C Bansal who coordinated the ICAR network project on transgenics till recently is now heading the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (custodian of plant genetic resources of the country!).
“The current UAS-D/CICR/IARI (NRCPB) fiasco proves once again that the Indian scientific community is not averse to scientific frauds and misleading the nation and the people. We do not need this technology force-fed to our farmers and consumers, we have sufficient workable and viable solutions for the agrarian crisis and demand that the government and public sector institutions work on these solutions rather than fraudulently promote GM technology”, said the Coalition.
It should also be remembered by certain political parties advocating public sector GM seeds that an inherently unsafe product does not become safer just because it comes from the public sector. In fact, accountability issues are murkier here, as has been seen in the case of the failure of CICR’s Bt cotton in the field, where large scale field trials have been waived off in favour of public sector GM research!
“All of this is ultimately experimentation happening at the expense of hapless Indian farmers and this is unconscionable. Severe deterrent action at the highest level is called for, in this case. We demand that a white paper be published on the investments made on this front so far by the government. Further, until all questions are answered including the actual technologies being used in the public sector transgenic R&D, IPR issues, future contamination possibilities etc., all funding to public sector transgenic projects should be immediately stopped. These scarce and valuable resources should be utilised for taking proven, safe, farmer-controlled technologies to the farmers”, demanded the Coalition.
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