India Central Institute Research of Cotton Research (CICR) makes a second bid to develop an indigenous Bt cotton seed. By now, the premier government agency already has 21 varieties of this genetically modified (GM) crop in its backyard.
At present, US multinational Monsanto enjoys a monopoly in Bt cotton seed business. The government has been struggling to make its own Bt cotton seed. CICR, however, awaits an OK from higher authorities due to a confusion whether using plants it developed for seed production will lead to any patent dispute with Monsanto. The company has already admitted that it does not have a patent on Bt cotton in India.
Last fortnight, CICR signed a MoU with Delhi University to carry further its research on Bt cotton. A similar pact will be inked with Tamil Nadu Agriculture university also. The whole process may take 2-3 years at least before the Indian Bt cotton seeds are commercially launched.
Here is a backgrounder. In 2004, CICR had entered into a tie-up with University of Agriculture Sciences (UAS) Dharwad. Scientists of this university claimed to have come up with their own version of Bt cotton - Bikaneri narma (BnBt) variety. In 2009, soon after BnBt was commercially launched, it was found that the plant had none other than Mon531 gene discovered by Monsanto, and not an indigenous version. The plan was dumped and scientists were asked to come up with an original gene by an expert committee.
Using the BnBt plant, CICR in the meantime created 21 different varieties of genetically modified cotton varieties. But plans to commercialize seeds derived from this variety were kept on the back burner after it was found that BnBt was actually Mon-531.
Monsanto, on the other hand, did not have a patent on the Mon-531, so CICR could have easily gone ahead with commercialization. The fact, however, was ignored, say sources related to the affair. Though Monsanto agrees that it has no patent on Mon-531.
It was common knowledge that Mon-531 was not covered under any patent. However, there was no initiative to push CICR's 21 varieties, a source said.
The BnBt gene claimed by UAS Dharwad may have actually been Mon-531, but it could not have led to rejection of the former's claim since there was no patent on Mon-531. CICR was free to use it, admit researchers. "The matter had to be taken up with the ministry of environment and forest (MoEF), which governs issues related GM crops. However, the question those days was that who would bell the cat," said a source related to the research.
It would have been easier to use the Mon-531 gene as it had already got all the clearances from MoEF. A new gene needs to undergo the whole process afresh. The matter has been recently referred to Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR), the parent of body of CICR, says Dr Keshav Kranthi of CICR.
Responding to TOI's query, ICAR referred to an earlier answer, when the newspaper reported that Mon-531 has no patent at all. ICAR said, "it is reported that Monsanto does not hold a patent in India, it would not be appropriate to use a technology without the concurrence of the technology-developer and without the permissions of the regulatory authorities such as the RCGM (Department of Biotechnology) and GEAC (Ministry of Environment, Forest, Climate change). However, ICAR is open to the option through complete compliance and adherence to rules and regulations."
ICAR's deputy director general (crop sciences) told TOI over telephone that the agency was approached by ministry of agriculture seeking a clarification on the patent issue. The query has been diverted to MoEF as it is the ministry which governs all matters related to GM crops. There was no response to TOI's mail to the MoEF.