New Delhi: The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) is investigating allegations that government scientists from several institutions falsely claimed to have developed an indigenous variety of Bt cotton called Bikaneri Narma (BN-Bt).

This cotton seed, allegations go, is an unoriginal version of Bt cotton developed by Monsanto Co. in the early 1990s and the genetic backbone of several types of cotton seeds being used by Indian farmers. In 2010, ICAR stopped the commercial sale of BN-Bt.

“BN-Bt seed samples were reported to contain Monsanto’s gene/event (MON 531). Consequently, ICAR had seed multiplication and commercialization suspended," according to an ICAR note that describes the investigative committee’s plan of action. An “event" is, in this case, biotechspeak for genetically modified (GM) plants that are insect-resistant.

While Indian law recognizes patents on events, MON531 isn’t patented in India, according to a Monsanto spokesperson.

The main agenda of the investigative committee that will be led by S.K. Sopory, vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, is to ascertain in three months whether scientists from the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS), Dharwad, National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology (NRCPB), and the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), Nagpur, did indeed develop an indigenous Bt variety or whether BN-Bt got mixed, or “contaminated", with seeds that contained MON 531.

If it was the latter, the committee will also investigate how these seeds escaped expert scrutiny and made it to the farmers’ fields.

In spotlight: A file photo of the Bikaneri Narma Bt cotton variety. APAARI

Bt cotton—predominantly based on MON 531—occupies over 90% of India’s arable cotton area and is credited with transforming India from an importer to a net exporter of cotton. The environment ministry subsequently stymied attempts to introduce Bt into food crops, notably brinjal.

Jairam Ramesh, the then environment minister, argued that before these were introduced, there needed to be a consensus within states on the safety of GM food crops, more scientific study of the possible fallout, and strong public sector-backed production of GM seeds.

If the investigating committee finds that Indian scientists hadn’t developed these seeds, or if it turns out that the government machinery couldn’t ensure the purity of the seeds that it distributes to farmers, it will further undermine the case for the country’s billion-dollar agribiotech industry.

Yogesh Kumar/Mint

They did this as part of a 2001 government initiative to introduce Bt into cotton varieties as an alternative to the more expensive, commercial hybrids marketed by seed companies.

NRCPB, which comes under the purview of ICAR, was tasked with creating an event that could be incorporated into Indian cotton varieties by UAS and then marketed by CICR.

Such cotton varieties are much cheaper and produce reusable, fertile seeds, but they don’t yield as much cotton as hybrids. In contrast, hybrids (the Bt cotton seeds currently sold by Monsanto’s partners in India) are high-yielding and expensive.

Companies make money because farmers must buy fresh seed from them every sowing season to maintain their yield and it is this aspect of seed procurement that has seen contentious litigation in several states such as Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, where governments have moved to cap the prices at which companies can sell such seeds.

Creating an event typically involves using genes derived from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that are then integrated into the cotton seeds’ genome.

While scientists and seed companies may know how to get these genes into the plant genome, they can’t predict the exact location where they will lodge. Through trial and error, genes are gunned into several plant saplings until the biotechnologists hit upon a suitable niche of the genome where the bacterial genes can stimulate the plant into producing the insecticide.

The controversy first came to light on 29 December, when The Indian Express cited data sourced from Right to Information activists to say that Monsanto’s “genes were present in BN-Bt".

Independent scientists say that discovering events is the primary concern for seed developers. “There are a limited arsenal of genes available. It’s creating viable events that is the bread and butter of seed developers," said K.K. Narayanan, managing director of Metahelix Life Sciences Ltd, a private seed company that too develops events.

Swapan Kumar Datta, deputy director general at ICAR, who stopped the commercialization, said that “issues would be looked into very seriously".

The Monsanto spokesperson said the company “would not like to comment on Bikaneri Narma as it is an internal matter of ICAR".

Khadi, Ananda Kumar and CICR director K. Kranthi declined to comment saying it would be improper to discuss the matter before the committee’s verdict. Sopory’s office didn’t return calls from Mint seeking comment.

“We haven’t formally met yet, as a committee. We will do so soon and then decide how to proceed on this," said R.V. Sonti, deputy director at Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, one of the investigation committee members.

This is a corrected version of an earlier story.