C Kameswara Rao

Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, Bangalore, India

The Indian private seed companies profited till now from the basic technology and crop breeding material from the public sector, be it the R & D institutions of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research or State Agricultural Universities and their stations or the Agricultural Research Stations of the State Governments.   While a good part of this technology transfer was above board, some seed companies were often accused of appropriating the technology without authorization or recompense.  Even some of the scientists involved in R & D in the public sector were accused of having kept their research under wrap till retirement and of selling it to the private sector post-retirement. 

Now the first step in changing this practice is taken by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco), the target board of Indian anti-GE activism.   Mahyco is transferring the technology and basic breeding material of Bt brinjal to two public sector institutions (PSIs), the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore (TNAU) and the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad (UASD), though the ownership of the GE event EE-1 still rests with Mahyco.   This partnership arrangement will be extended to the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research, Varanasi, University of Philippines, Los Banos, Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute and a private seed company, East West Seeds, Bangladesh .

The Bt brinjal contains a gene construct of Cry 1 Ac from Monsanto, the American MNC, which has a 26 per cent stake in Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech (MMB).   The PSIs will now use the Mahyco material to backcross with their own brinjal varieties to incorporate the genetic event into them, imparting tolerance to the fruit and stem borers of brinjal that cause severe damage to the produce. 

In India alone, 25 million farmers cultivate brinjal on over 5.1 lakh hectares with an annual production of about 8.2 million tonnes.  Even after continuous insecticide application, the stem and fruit borers affect 50 to 70 per cent of the crop annually. 

Mahyco has integrated EE1 into eight of its own brinjal hybrids (MHB 4, 9, 10, 80, 99, 11, 39, 111) and sought permission of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) for large scale open field trials (LSOFT).   The activists contested  the move, but not on any sound scientific grounds.   The GEAC has put all the biosecuirty data provided by Mahyco on its website for public comment.   The approval of the GEAC for LSOFT has to come yet.

The TNAU will use brinjal hybrids Co-1, PLR-1, MDU-1 and KKM-1 while the UASD will use Manjari Gota, Udupi Gulla, Malapur local, Kudachi local, 112-GO hybrids and Rabkavi local, together covering a large part of the needs of the four southern States.

So long as the PSIs do not involve in commercializing these Bt varieties, no royalties need be paid.   The farmers can save the seed to raise the subsequent season’s crop, unlike the Bt cotton hybrids.   What costs the farmers would have to pay for different varieties of Bt brinjal is yet unknown. 

It is not clear if the PSIs made any lump sum payment for the transfer of technology, which seems to have been effected through the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II, funded by the USAID and managed by the Cornell University. 

The situation is welcome change as the development of none of the 60 or so Bt hybrids involved the PSIs.   There were very steep royalty or trait charges paid by the farmers, which was one of the most serious criticisms against MMB.   In addition, there is the inadvisability of recycling the seed.

While this much-awaited private and public partnership is refreshing, celebration should be put on hold for several reasons.  

The Bt brinjal EE1 event did not originate with PSIs, not even with Mahyco; it is Monsanto’s technology.   The Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) has been developing a Bt brinjal with Cry1Ab for nearly a decade, and its progress is anybody’s guess. 

Of the 67 or so GE crop traits registered for development in India, the largest number (39) are from about 20 PSIs.  In spite of working for 10 to 15 years, not even a single trait is likely to be commercialized in this decade, not withstanding the enthusiastic announcements on marketing them soon.  None of the events that are now being commercialized or in the process of commercialization in the near future have originated in this country; it is imported technology, bought or even pirated, directly or indirectly.

It is hard to believe that this new largesse of Mahyco is due to a change of heart; business compulsions and strategies cannot be ruled out.   People who forget history will be condemned to repeat it.  

India ’s Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission (MRTPC) ruled against MMB on charges of monopoly, which virtually ended this year.   Distributing the Bt brinjal event to a few other seed developers may avoid a repetition of such an allegation. 

The original four Bt cotton varieties of Mahyco were neither genetically superior nor suited to all cotton growing regions.   Even with some 40 to 60 different Bt cotton varieties today, one is not sure that every cotton-growing region in the country is being served well.  One would wish that more varieties of Bt brinjal with superior genotypes would be developed for the other regions of the country as well.  

The royalty or trait charge component of Bt cotton was high.   Hopefully, MMB would take note of the rough weather faced by Bt its cotton and fix reasonable costs.  

The move to allow some PSIs to share the Bt brinjal technology is good for the public image of Mahyco, viewed as contributing to the much-aspired private-public partnership.  And it would certainly take a lot of wind out of the anti-tech activists’ tirade against MMB.

August 8, 2006