India: Bitter Words Over Better Seeds

A pest-fighting cotton strain sparks protest-and riles farmers

Two years ago, cotton-growing regions of southern India were hit by voracious bollworms. The subsequent crop destruction drove some 200 debt-burdened Indian farmers to suicide. Such a tragedy might have been averted by Bollgard, a strain of cotton genetically engineered by Monsanto Co. to produce a bollworm-killing protein. Commercially introduced in the U.S. in 1995, Bollgard has been used in field trials around India by Monsanto's partner, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co., with the goal of making the seeds available to farmers by 2000.

Instead, Bollgard has sparked a heated controversy over plans to use genetic engineering to give a badly needed boost to India's farm output. Charges that Bollgard carries a "terminator" gene to make its seeds sterile have created a furor. Bollgard has become a lightning rod for the environmentalists, leftists, and opponents of multinationals who claim that high-tech foreign seeds will inflict unforeseen damage on croplands and push small farmers deeper into debt. But improved seeds are critical to increasing farm production and exports. Indeed, India's $500 million seed market could be worth an estimated $2 billion within a decade, much of that driven by demand for genetically modified crops.

Monsanto's plans took a hit last month, when Andhra Pradesh--the state hardest hit by the bollworm infestation--halted Bollgard trials after farmers uprooted and burned test fields. The farmers were furious over rumors that Monsanto was secretly testing a terminator gene to sterilize seeds. That, they said, would force Indian farmers, who traditionally sow seeds culled from their own plants to save money, to buy new seeds every year.

The frenzy over the gene was whipped up by a Bangalore-based lawyer, M.D. Nanjundaswamy, a self-proclaimed farm leader and fierce opponent of India's liberalization. Earlier, he led protests against Cargill and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Officials in Andhra Pradesh also believe the Monsanto protests were encouraged by pesticide dealers fearful of losing business. Farmers, suspicious of multinationals and depressed over last year's crop disaster, were ready to believe.

"The whole thing is a dreamt-up fantasy," insists Mark Wells, Monsanto's India marketing manager. But research to develop a terminator gene is being done in the labs of Delta & Pine Land Co., a U.S. cotton-seed company that Monsanto has offered to buy. Monsanto sees the gene as a "biological patent," which would ensure that everyone using its seeds would have to buy new ones each year. Wells says it will be years before such technology could be ready for commercial use and that it would not be introduced in India without government approval. Although Bollgard trials are continuing outside Andhra Pradesh, Monsanto is likely to face delays in getting the seed approved for sale.

Whatever happens to Monsanto's efforts, India needs help. Agricultural productivity in the country is now just about half that of China for most crops, and some 200 million Indians are undernourished. Global biotech companies like Monsanto and Germany's AgrEvo say seeds modified to resist pests and herbicides could help boost yields. Still, critics argue that "miracle seeds" aren't the solution. They say low-tech investments in irrigation and rural roads would do far more to give farmers--and food production--a boost.

FARMER'S CHOICE? But companies are betting that many Indian farmers would use the new technology. After Bollgard cotton, Monsanto, which is building a $3 million research facility in India, wants to introduce new strains of soya and maize. Meanwhile, Proagro-PGS India Ltd. is testing pest-resistant tomatoes, cauliflower, and cabbage.

The enthusiasm isn't limited to multinationals. Indian government scientists have been working since the late 1980s on genetically modified crops, including rice and tomatoes. "Our intention is to take it to the market," says P.K. Ghosh, head of the government's Biotechnology Dept. "Let the farmer decide."

That may be tougher now, though. Activists are targeting the government's work in genetically altered foods as well as Monsanto's. This is one pesky controversy that won't be easily eradicated.

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