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India: Government Approves Use of BT Cotton

by Hari RamachandranReuters
March 27th, 2002

NEW DELHI -- India said on Wednesday it had allowed production of three genetically modified cotton hybrids by a private company which has U.S. biotechnology giant Monsanto as its partner.

This is the first genetically engineered hybrid allowed for commercial sowing by the government after over five years of field trials and lab tests by the Bombay-Based Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co (MAHYCO).

Monsanto owns a 26 percent stake in MAHYCO.

The company started limited field trials of its BT (bacillus thuringiensis)seed in 1996/97 but has faced opposition from environmentalists and farmers worried about its safety and the transparency of the trial data.

The BT cotton contains the ``Cry 1 Ac'' gene and is resistant to the cotton bollworm, which can cause heavy damage to crops.

On Tuesday, India approved commercial production of gene-modified cotton, and indicated it may later allow other transgenic crops previously barred because of worries about their impact on the environment.

``The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has approved the release into the environment of three transgenic BT hybrid cotton varieties, developed by MAHYCO with certain conditions,'' GEAC chairman A.M. Gokhale told reporters on Wednesday.

Gokhale said these were the BT MECH 12, BT MECH 162 and BT MECH 184 varieties containing ``CRY 1 Ac'' and some other genes. He said trials were continuing on a fourth variety and most probably would be approved by the committee.

``The period of validity of approval is three years from April 2002-March 2005,'' Gokhale said.

MAHYCO said it will study and implement the conditions laid down by GEAC for commercialisation.

In a statement the company said the decision will benefit millions of small farmers. ``It will enable cotton farmers to tackle the bollworm menace and increase their crop yields and farm income,'' MAHYCO said.

Traders said farmers would buy BT cotton seeds even if they were more expensive as the gains would be substantial in terms of lower pesticide and fertiliser usage.

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Shirish Shah of cotton trading firm Bhaidas Cursondas & Company said sufficiant quantity of BT cotton seed might not be available this year as sowing will begin in May/June.

``The impact of the GM cotton could be visible in the crop sown in June 2003.''

Gokhale said the GEAC, whose approval is mandatory for field trials and commercial production of GM crops in the country, will next take up a transgenic crop of mustard.

``Next application we are going to take up is mustard in the coming few months. Serious discussions are on within the group,'' Gokhale said, adding soybean and corn could be others on the list.

The GEAC has stipulated that fields where BT cotton is planted will be surrounded by a belt of land called ``refuge'' in which the same non-BT cotton variety will be sown.

It said the size of the refuge belt should take at least five rows of non-BT cotton or 20 percent of total sown area whichever was more.

India, the world's third largest cotton producer, has so far only allowed a few companies and research bodies to carry out field trials of gene-altered crops.

Traders say India's cotton yield is just 300 kg per hectare -- less than half the global average of about 650 kg.

``About 150,000 hectares out of the present area will come under BT cotton in the first year,'' Gokhale said. ``The increase in productivity will be spectacular but I cannot give you any figures.''

India's cotton output in the current crop year to September 2002 is estimated to rise to 15.6 million bales (of 170 kg each) from 14.0 million a year earlier.

Gokhale said MAHYCO would monitor annually the susceptibility of bollworm to BT gene and submit data on it to Geac.

"We are going to make sure that MAHYCO follows these conditions and we will be checking the compliance at the company and dealers levels,'' Gokhale said.

(Additional reporting by Atul Prakash in BOMBAY)

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