GM Cotton and Surrounding Controversy

In an event organized by Shetkari Sanghtana, a farmers union a group of more than 1,000 farmers gathered in a village in Akola of Maharashtra to sow seeds of an unapproved, genetically modified variety of cotton, defying government regulations.

Current Provisions

In India, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) under the Environment Ministry is responsible to assess the safety of a genetically modified plant and decide whether it is fit for cultivation

Besides Bt cotton, the GEAC has cleared two other genetically modified crops viz. brinjal and mustard which have not received the consent of the Environment Minister.

Why the Controversy?

Bt cotton is the only GM crop allowed to be cultivated in India. Developed by Bayer-Monsanto, the Bt Cotton involves the insertion of two genes viz Cry1Ab and Cry2Bc from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into cotton seeds.

This insertion of genes aids plant to produce a protein toxic to Heliothis bollworm (pink bollworm) thus making it resistant to their attack. The commercial release of this hybrid was sanctioned by the government in 2002.

But the farmers planted a herbicide-tolerant variety of Bt cotton. involves the addition of another gene, Cp4-Epsps from another soil bacterium, Agrobacterium tumefaciens which is not cleared by GEAC.

The farmers claim that the HtBt variety can withstand the spray of glyphosate, a herbicide that is used to remove weeds, and thus it substantially saves them de-weeding costs since Farmers spend around Rs 3,000-5,000 per acre for de-weeding. Further, the uncertainty in finding labour, de-weeding threatens the economic viability of their crops.

Legal Provisions

Genetic changes in a plant can make it unsafe for consumption and result in adverse impacts on human or animal health, or introduce problems in the soil or neighbouring crops. Hence stringent norms are followed in testing the GM crops before allowing them for cultivation.

Also, the sale, storage, transportation and usage of unapproved GM seeds is a punishable offence under the Rules of Environmental Protection Act.

The district administration of Ankola has now sent samples of the sown seeds to a laboratory in Nagpur to verify whether they were indeed an unapproved GM variety. The Environment Ministry has also written to the state government seeking a factual report on the incident.