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End to Monsanto's Bt cotton monopoly?

Harish Damodaran

New Delhi , April 12

THERE is seemingly good news for domestic cotton growers, who are now wholly dependent on Monsanto for transgenic Bt technology to combat the dreaded American bollworm insect pest.

The US life sciences giant's monopoly is set to be broken, with at least three companies — JK Agri Genetics, Syngenta Seeds India and Nath Seeds — in the process of introducing genetically modified (GM) cotton hybrids incorporating alternative gene constructs or `operating systems,' in common man's parlance.

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) is scheduled to meet here on Wednesday to consider giving permission to the three companies to undertake large-scale trials and seed production of their hybrids for the Central and North zones. If things go as per plan, these hybrids would be ready for commercial cultivation by 2007.

The Bt cotton hybrids — currently being marketed by Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco), Rasi Seeds and Ankur Seeds — incorporate a `foreign' gene called cry1Ac, derived from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis. The technology for incorporation of the gene, in turn, is based on Bollgard, the specific gene construct patented by Monsanto.

Monsanto has so far inked sub-licensing agreements for Bollgard with 21 domestic companies, which, critics argue, gives it a power similar to what Microsoft enjoys on its Windows operating system. While a 450-gram packet of Bt cotton is now sold at Rs 1,600 to the farmer, against Rs 450-500 for non-Bt hybrids, it is estimated that up to 70 per cent of the price difference is constituted by the technology fee that the seed companies pay to Monsanto.

But the emergence of alternative sources of Bt technology could well change the picture, doing to Monsanto "what Linux has done to Microsoft." JK Agri, for one, claims that its Bt cotton hybrids are developed from a `modified cry1Ac gene' technology developed by Prof S.K. Sen's team at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.

Nath Seeds has sourced its technology from China, having secured rights for a `fusion' cry1Ac/cry1Ab Bt gene, developed by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

Syngenta's Bt cotton, on the other hand, is based on a completely different set of genes called Vip or vegetative insecticidal protein. The genes are isolated from the same Bt and they, too, synthesise proteins that `bind' themselves to the mid-gut of the insect, inhibiting their metabolic activity.

Industry sources say that once the new hybrids hit the market, Bt cotton prices may drop to about Rs 1,000 per packet. As a response to the impending competition perhaps, Monsanto is now planning to launch Bollgard II, an improved version of Bollgard.

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