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Panel green signal for Bt cotton

Our Bureau

NEW DELHI, March 26

IN what is perceived as a significant milestone for Indian agriculture, the Government on Tuesday allowed commercial cultivation of the country's first ever genetically engineered crop — the controversial Bt cotton developed by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco) in collaboration with the US-based life sciences major, Monsanto.

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) under the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), which met here, approved the commercial release of three out of Mahyco's four transgenic hybrid cottons, for which the company had sought approval. The three hybrids that were cleared for commercial cultivation were Mech-12, Mech-162 and Mech-184.

A decision on the fourth hybrid (Mech-915) was deferred, as the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) — which, along with the Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC) under the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), had supervised the open field trials of Mahyco's transgenics — could not submit its evaluation report in this case.

"We have granted approval to the three hybrids for a three-year period from April 2002 to March 2005. This would mean Mahyco can make available its seeds to farmers for the coming three planting seasons," Mr A.M. Gokhale, Chairman, GEAC, told newspersons.

Apart from the time frame for which the clearance has been given, the GEAC has also laid down other conditions for Mahyco to comply with. The company would have to provide information on the quantity of seeds produced, names of individual distributors/dealers and quantities sold along season-wise acreages under each hybrid. Besides, Mahyco will have to monitor and report incidence of any resistance build-up or second-generation susceptibility of the crop to the target insect pest (American bollworm), possible negative impact of pollen transfer to neighbouring fields, etc.

"The company would have to furnish detailed annual reports on these aspects for each of the three years. Mahyco would have to work out appropriate statistical sampling techniques for conducting its evaluation," Mr Gokhale added.

The GEAC has further made it mandatory for farmers accessing Mahyco's seeds to plant at least 20 per cent of their field area under non-Bt cotton hybrids or varieties. "Farmers will have to plant a minimum of five rows along the periphery of their field or 20 per cent of the total area, whichever is higher, under non-Bt cotton (which is susceptible to the pest). This area would act as a refuge for the bollworm and will ensure that the Bt cotton does not become susceptible over time to the pest," he added.

He, however, clarified that the onus for maintaining the mandated `refuge area' would lie with the farmer and not with the company. "It is not possible for Mahyco to force the farmer to plant non-Bt cotton in any specified area. The job of enforcement will have to be with the concerned State Government, which may empower the Gram Panchayat to do the monitoring on its behalf," he added.

The 21-member GEAC includes officials from MoEF, DBT, ICAR, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the Ministries of Health, Agriculture, Food Processing Industries and External Affairs. Although representatives from the ICMR and Health Ministry were not present at Tuesday's meeting — which was attended by 15 members — Mr Gokhale said that the decision to clear the three Bt cotton hybrids "was totally unanimous with none of the members expressing dissent either verbally or in writing".

Mahyco was given permission to carry out large scale open field trials of its Bt cotton hybrids in July 2000. The trials were mostly conducted during last year's kharif season from around May.

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