India may allow GM crop production by March


Tuesday, October 16, 2001

Extract:"We don't need any further legislation....."

India is likely to allow by March the commercial production of a genetically modified (GM) crop for the first time, a top government official said. "Things are moving very fast," Manju Sharma, secretary in the federal department of biotechnology in New Delhi, told Reuters by phone late on Monday.

The first approval is likely to be given to India's Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (MAHYCO), which has been conducting large-scale field trials of its GM cotton variety in collaboration with U.S.-based biotech firm Monsanto . The biotechnology giant also owns a stake in MAHYCO. The Indian seed company had already received the first set of reports from its trials, and was now collecting more data, Sharma said. "The data collection and analysis should be over by December," said Sharma, who is also a plant physiologist. She said approval for the company's GM cotton variety could come "certainly by the end of this financial year. This is my presumption, if nothing goes wrong." The government had taken several steps to expedite the approval procedure, and many firms were now seeking permission to develop and introduce transgenic seeds locally, she said.

MAHYCO started limited field trials of its Bt cotton in 1996-97, but faced intermittent opposition from environmentalists and farmers, who raised questions about bio-safety and transparency of the trial data. The Bt -- bacillus thuringiensis -- cotton hybrids, which contain the 'Cry 1 Ac' gene, is resistant to the cotton bollworm, which causes heavy damage to the Indian cotton crop.

Sharma said India needed GM technology to improve yields. "We have serious crop losses due to pest attacks," she said. Soil fertility in many parts of the country had dwindled due to the excessive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Farm scientists estimate that almost half the country's pesticide use goes to protect cotton crops from pest attacks. Sharma said apprehensions expressed by environmentalists had been clarified scientifically.

Concerns that transgenic seeds may develop resistance in the long-term could be tackled by introducing another supporting gene, she said. "Scientists are already working on gene management strategy so that this resistance question can be countered." TRANSGENIC SEEDS

Several scientific institutes in the country were developing GM seeds to improve crop yields, Sharma said. Many have completed laboratory work on transgenic seeds for several commodities like mustard, potato and tomato, and are now conducting field trials, Sharma said. "There are a large number of crops in the final stages of testing," she said. India is also working on an international rice genome project for sequencing the commodity.

For instance, the country plans to collaborate with Switzerland to develop a transgenic rice variety with more vitamin content.

"Swiss people have done it in a particular variety. We would like to introduce it in the variety which is maximally eaten by our poor people," Sharma said. "We are just finalising the proposal."

Sharma said India had enough laws to tackle the adverse impacts of GM technology on crops, people and livestock.

"Our bio-safety guidelines are the best in the world today. We don't need any further legislation," she said.