The controversies surrounding the use of Bt technology are innumerable. Just as the criticism for Bt slowly dies down with awareness coming in, it seems still a long route for India to implement it on a full scale and design precautionary steps in preventing future hazards, if any.
An interview with Dr CLIVE JAMES, founder, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), on the scope of Bt in Indian farm conditions.
How is the demand for Bt technology in India?
The fact that Bt cotton has been adopted so quickly and widely by Indian farmers across different cotton growing states is an indication of Indian farmers' willingness to adopt Bt technology in different crops. There has been keen interest by farmers, irrespective of farm size and location, to avail benefits of Bt technology. It is noteworthy that for the seven-year period 2002-2008, there was a 150 fold increase in Bt cotton in India - this is four times the 74 fold increase for global biotech crops during the 13-year period 1996-2008.
On an average, farmers increased their yield, reduced insecticides application and increased net profit due to Bt technology. It is important to note that lepidopteron insects cause heavy losses to crops such as cotton, brinjal, okra and rice. Farmers apply heavy insecticides spray to control these insects but they escape repeated sprays as they bore into different parts of the plant and live a concealed life. Bt technology is meant to effectively control lepidopteron insects, also called borer insects. It is important to note that Bt technology is only effective against this group of insect and completely safe for other non-target organisms, animal and human health.
Presently a lot of research is happening in the area of cotton. Which are the other crops on which Bt research is on and what is the status at present?
The crops that are affected by lepidopteron insects such as American bollworm and pink bollworm for cotton, fruit and shoot borer for brinjal, European corn borer for maize, stem borer for rice are developed with Bt technology to provide an alternative method for controlling extensive damage caused by borer insects in these crops. Other crops are developed with herbicide tolerant (effective weed management) such as cotton, maize and wheat and nutritional enhanced potato and golden rice. A list of crops under development is listed below:
Status of Field Trials of Biotech/GM Crops in India, 2008
Can you brief us on the various timelines for Bt crops?
It is important to note that these crops are strictly regulated and have to undergo rigorous science based risk assessment. It takes around 5-7 years to complete safety assessment and prepare extensive regulatory package prior to commercial approval. For example, Bt brinjal, which is the first food crop, since its development in 2000, has undergone rigorous scientific evaluation to assess its food safety, environmental safety, human and animal health safety and biodiversity. Rigorous scientific tests, including toxicity and allergenicity evaluation as well as nutritional studies on rabbits, rats, carps, goats, broiler chickens and dairy cows, have confirmed that Bt brinjal is as safe as its non-Bt counterparts. The safety of Bt brinjal was further validated by the results of the studies on pollen escape, effects on soil microflora and non-target organisms, agronomy, invasiveness and Bt protein degradation. Results of the studies demonstrated that Bt brinjal does not affect beneficial insects such as aphids, leafhoppers, spiders and lady beetles. Bt brinjal is at the most advanced stage of approval. The GEAC has approved experimental seed production in 2008 and is most likely the second GM crop after cotton to be approved in India in near future. Other crops close to approval process include Bt rice, Bt okra, GM potato, GM maize etc.
What are the legal hurdles if any for the newer Bt crops?
There have been issues that are causing delay in approval of other Bt and GM crops including;
- A couple of litigation applications by Greenpeace and allied associations in the Supreme Court and high courts
-Regulatory requirements to repeat basic safety studies such as safety of protein etc.
- Safety bar is set so high that it is impossible for public sector GM crops to get product approval.
-NGOs activism- misleading public on safety of Bt crops.
How will the usage of pesticide reduce if Bt crops are cultivated?
Bt cotton is a good example of evidence. Traditionally, cotton consumed more insecticides than any other crop in India and was a significant proportion of the total pesticide (insecticides, fungicides and herbicides) market for all crops. For example, of the total pesticide market in India in 1998 valued at $770 million, 30% was for cotton insecticides only which were equal to 42% of the total insecticide market for all crops in India. Subsequent to the introduction of Bt cotton, cotton consumed only 18% of the total pesticide market, in 2006, valued at $900 million as compared to a much higher 30% in 1998. Similarly, the market share for cotton insecticides as a percentage of total insecticides declined from 42% in 1998 to 28% in 2006. This saving in insecticides between 1998 and 2006 coincided with the introduction of Bt cotton which occupied 3.8 million hectares, equivalent to 42% of the hectarage of the cotton crop in 2006. More specifically, the sharpest decline in insecticides occurred in the bollworm market in cotton, which declined from $147 million in 1998 to $65 million in 2006 - a 56% decrease, equivalent to a saving of $82 million in the use of insecticides to control cotton bollworm in 2006. Thus, insecticides use for control of bollworm dropped by half at the same time when approximately half the cotton area (3.8 million hectares) was benefiting from controlling bollworm with Bt cotton. The introduction of Bt brinjal, Bt rice and Bt maize will further help farmers halve pesticides usages benefiting farmers, consumers and environment at large.
Which are the companies presently involved with Bt research in India? Which newer companies have shown interest in terms of investment or alliances for that matter?
There are around 30 Indian private companies and large numbers of public sector institutions that are involved in Bt and GM research in India. The top indigenous companies that have been making substantial investment in R&D and establishing world class seed processing plants for various crops include Mahyco, Rasi Seeds, Vibha Seeds, JK Agrigenetics, Nath Seeds, Bejo Sheetal, Krishidhan Seeds, Bioseeds Research etc. In addition, multinational companies are also involved and developing collaborations with many Indian companies and public sector institutions that include Monsanto, Bayer, DevGen, Syngenta, Dow AgroScience, Pioneer/Dupont etc.
In 2006-07, the Indian biotech sector exceeded the $2 billion benchmark with industry reporting nearly 31% growth over 2005-06. According to the survey conducted by BioSpectrum-ABLE in 2007-08, the Indian biotech industry reached $2.5 billion in revenues, recording 30.98% growth, over the previous year's $2.08 billion and is projected to be a $5 billion industry by 2010. More specifically the agricultural biotech (BioAgri) sector grew 54.9% in 2006-07, 95% in 2005-06 and increased twelve-fold from $26.8 million in 2002-20