New Delhi: Agricultural biotechnology firm Monsanto India Ltd’s claim that Bt cotton is no longer resistant to an evolving pest may be premature, said an expert who heads a government-nominated panel to monitor the genetically engineered crop’s resistance level.
K.R. Kranthi, director of the Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR), said data submitted to his institute by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Ltd, or MMB, a joint venture firm of Monsanto India and Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co. Ltd, or Mahyco, doesn’t confirm that the pest could now infect Bt cotton.
“I did tell them that their data and their sampling procedures were insufficient and inconclusive. I’m quite surprised that they issued a press statement and involved CICR, when the right way would have been to get their data peer-reviewed before pronouncing judgement,” Kranthi told Mint over the phone from Nagpur.
On Friday, Monsanto India issued a statement saying its scientists had confirmed Bt cotton fields in four districts in Gujarat were susceptible to the pest. This can potentially undermine state-of-the-art Bt cotton technology, which accounts for at least 80% of the cotton produced in India, and is credited with turning India from a cotton importer to the world’s second largest producer of the cash crop after China.
Kranthi said he had forwarded the findings of Monsanto scientists to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the apex body supervising the manufacture, trade and use of genetically modified products.
Kranthi heads a committee nominated by GEAC, which includes scientists from CICR, Mahyco and Monsanto India, that has been monitoring resistance trends in Bt cotton since 2003. “I haven’t reported resistance to GEAC,” he said.
He added that MMB’s data did suggest Bt cotton did seem vulnerable to an unusually high number of pests. “But it could be the weather, it could be poor quality of seeds, incorrect pest management practices for farmers. Our scientists have noted such spikes in insect tolerance before in 2007 and 2005,” he said.
He termed Monsanto’s analysis as flawed because it didn’t conduct tests involving pests sourced from non-Bt cotton fields, and that the resistant larvae ought to be analysed over two-three generations.
Senior scientist Rashmi Nair said Monsanto India had informed CICR of its findings, but received no comments. “I believe they informed GEAC, but didn’t make any specific recommendations.”
“We are still collaborating with CICR and sharing data,” Monsanto India said in an email. “We released our findings, validated by our scientists, in keeping with our commitment to transparency and public accountability.”
P. Ananda Kumar, senior scientist at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute and a GEAC member, said he had seen Monsanto’s data. Though he felt it suggested vulnerability, he wasn’t aware of the sample size (of the pests) used.