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India approves Bt cotton

(March 28, 2002 – CropChoice news) – In a decision that biotechnology opponents say could harm India’s agriculture, the Indian government on Tuesday approved for three years (April 2002 – March 2005) the commercial planting of three varieties of genetically modified cotton seed. This could lead to the approval of other transgenic crops that the government has barred out of concern over deleterious environmental, agronomic and health effects.

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), part of the Indian Ministry of Environment, granted the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Limited (Mahyco) permission to commercialize the BT MECH 12, BT MECH 162 and BT MECH 184 varieties, all of which contain the "CRY 1 Ac" gene. It expresses the insecticidal bacterium bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which makes the cotton plants resistant to bollworms.

Farmers and environmentalists have expressed concern about the safety of the plants and the transparency of the field trial data that Mahyco, 26 percent of which Monsanto owns, has gathered. In The Sydney Morning Herald ( http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2002/03/27/1017206116212.html), John Vidal wrote: "…if, as expected, large-scale Indian farmers switch to the GM varieties, then most of the world's cotton is expected to be genetically modified within a few years. Up to 90 per cent of all US cotton is now modified, and South Africa, Argentina and other large exporters have all changed in the past three years. China now grows more than 400,000 hectares of GM cotton.

The world supply of GM cotton seeds is in effect in the control of just four companies that own the patents. The companies say their research shows that GM cotton more than halves the need to use insecticides and also increases yields by up to 30 per cent, and returns by 8 per cent. Average Indian yields are about 120 kilograms per hectare, less than half the global average.

The Government's decision is likely to lead to further confrontations between Monsanto and farmers' groups, which can organise rallies of up to 1 million people." The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee said that it would ensure that farmers are adhering to the various conditions it placed on the approval of the Bt cotton, such as the buffer zones and non-transgenic cotton refuges to minimize pests developing resistance to the Bt. How exactly it’ll do that remains to be seen.