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India's Mahyco conducts trials on more GM seeds

Friday May 24, 6:34 AM EDT
By Atul Prakash
BOMBAY, May 24 (Reuters) - India's Mahyco, the first company allowed to sell genetically modified seeds in the country, said it was conducting field trials on more transgenic cotton hybrids containing technology from U.S. giant Monsanto (MON). Earlier this year, the government permitted Mahyco or Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company, which is 26-percent owned by Monsanto's unlisted Indian arm, Monsanto Holdings Private Limited, to produce and sell three varieties of genetically modified (GM) cotton hybrids. GM technology could help boost abysmally low farm yields in a country of more than a billion people, agricultural scientists say. "We have started field trials for two more GM cotton hybrids that will be best suited for northern India," Raju Barwale, managing director of Mahyco told Reuters on Friday, adding the results would be ready before the next planting season begins, in June 2003. "The new seeds could be sold to farmers from the next season, provided we get government approval before that," he said. The three cotton hybrids that it is already selling, the Mech 12 Bt, Mech 162 Bt and Mech 184 Bt, are ideal for central and south India, which have different agro-climatic conditions from the north, Barwale said. All five cotton hybrids contain the "Cry 1 Ac" gene, designed to make the crop resistant to the bollworm, which is responsible for more than 80 percent of damage to the cotton crop from pest attacks. Mahyco started field trials of its gene-altered Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) hybrid in 1996/97.
Bt cotton seeds would give 30 to 40 percent more yield than other non-GM hybrids and required 70 percent less pesticide to control the bollworm, Barwale said. According to trade estimates, cotton accounts for nearly half the country's total pesticide consumption. The average yield of cotton in India, the third-largest producer in the world, is about half the global average of more than 600 kg (1,320 lbs) per hectare. India annually produces 15 to 16 million cotton bales (of 170 kg each) from about nine million hectares (22 million acres), the largest area under cotton cultivation in the world. Mahyco is also conducting trials on existing GM cotton hybrids with a second gene. "Two genes in a hybrid will protect crops on a sustained basis and manage development of resistance against bollworm," Barwale said. Mahyco is also independently developing genetically modified seeds of sorghum, some pulses and vegetables which would improve yields and be resistant to some pests, he said. "These are being tested in labs and greenhouses," he said, adding these seeds could take several years to reach farmers. POOR SEED AVAILABILITY
GM cotton is expected to be sown in less than half a percent of India's total cotton growing area in the current planting season beginning next month due to the limited availability of seeds. "We have only 105,000 units of GM cotton seed for sale this season as we had permission for limited seed production last year," Barwale said. Each unit, containing 450 grams of GM seed, is enough to plant one acre. "We target to sell 500,000 to 700,000 units of GM seed next year but will take a final decision based on farmers' response in the current cropping season," he said. "This is a test marketing year for us." Mahyco Monsanto Biotech, a 50:50 marketing joint venture, has also given licence to some local seed companies to develop GM cotton hybrids using the "Cry 1 Ac" gene, he said. These companies will conduct field trials and seek government approval for commercial marketing, which could take a few years.