Centre plans alternative to Bt cotton

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To develop genes that can be integrated into traditional varieties for larger outputs

RCH-2 Bt Cotton being harvested at a farm near Salem in Tamil Nadu. Photo: Shaju John
RCH-2 Bt Cotton being harvested at a farm near Salem in Tamil Nadu. Photo: Shaju John
 The Union government is working to develop a suite of Bt cotton genes that can be integrated into traditional varieties and be made available to farmers as a viable alternative to the current technology, which is largely sourced from Mahyco Monsanto Biotech India Ltd. (MMB).

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research has for many years unsuccessfully tried to develop Bt cotton, which contains insecticidal genes sourced from a soil bacterium and targeted at key cotton pests. However, officials told The Hindu that this project would be led by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Department of Biotechnology (DBT).

There were already several genes available in various labs and stages of development, but the aim was “that India not be dependent on foreign technology,” said a top official privy to the project but who did not want to be identified.

While Bt cotton has always been controversial, it is now in the throes of a new controversy with the Agriculture Ministry mooting a change in the way seed companies and seed-technology companies such as the MMB share royalty, technology and determine the price as which farmers buy cotton seed. Different arms of government are split over whether seed tech companies have the right or are obliged to license their technology to seed companies on request. More clarity is expected to emerge on this issue within the next few months.

Slew of technologies

“So far, we’ve had only one brainstorming session,” the same official said, “but we are serious about this and hope to take it up in mission mode.” Institutes such the National Botanical Research Institute, the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources will be among the key agencies for identifying and developing new genes. “We have a slew of technologies — GM as well as non-GM — in our public institutions that we can use to work on cotton,” said K .Vijay Raghavan, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology. “There have been regulatory challenges but things are getting better.”

Cotton is the only genetically-modified seed that’s legally allowed in India. Gm food crops such as brinjal and mustard, which are in advanced stages of regulatory clearances, are yet to become available to farmers due to stringent opposition by anti-GM activist groups.

Another government official, aware of the project and who didn’t want to be identified, said that historically multinational companies’ research budgets far outweighed that of Indian research agencies. “This project will have to address that because translating genes into commercial products is a huge challenge,” he told The Hindu.

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