Sunday, December 26, 1999


Suman Sahai

In a definitive legal action that many would say was coming, some of the most powerful anti-trust lawyers in America have filed a case against the Monsanto Company. The case has been filed at the instance of a group of influential environmental NGOs in the US. Jeremy Rifkin, well-known environmental activist and long time critic of Monsanto is the actual initiator of this action and a principal carrying force in the lawsuit. What should be particularly intimidating for Monsanto is the high caliber battery of lawyers who have filed the case. These are people who have fought and won some of the most high profile class action suits, notably the one against Microsoft and the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.

The case against Monsanto was filed on behalf of a coalition of small farmers and farmer groups and is classified as a ‘class-action’ suit in the US. These suits are particularly tricky and since they are filed on behalf of a whole class of people, are usually perceived as an action seeking to right the wrongs done to large numbers of people; in this case the farming community. A similar class action suit brought against tobacco companies was decided in favor of the people and against the tobacco giants. This led to a court decision following which the tobacco majors will have to pay out millions of dollars in compensation to aggrieved victims who had filed a class action against the damage done to them. Seeing the history of class action suits, Monsanto has every reason to be worried.

The case against Monsanto is for prematurely pushing genetically modified seeds onto the market without adequate bio-safety tests. The lawsuit charges that Monsanto has given farmers fraudulent guarantees about the safety and marketability of the new genetically engineered seeds. In addition to this, the company is accused under antitrust laws of attempting to control a major portion of the world’s seed supply. Specifically, Monsanto is accused of being central to the efforts to form an international cartel that conspires to control the world market in maize and soybean. Together with Monsanto, the lawyers have named nine other Life Sciences giants like Novartis and Du Pont as co-conspirators.

In addition to their legal problems, Monsanto has to worry about the stock market. Wall Street is putting strong pressure on the company to spin off its Searle pharmaceutical business. Whereas independent Searle shares are selling at $ 38 a share, combined with Monsanto, their price goes up a paltry $ 3 to 41.25 a share. And that is not all. Faced with the millstone of its agribusiness and its heavy investments made to buy up all the competition (at a cost of 8.5 billion dollars) Monsanto has had to back out of the proposed acquisition of Delta –Pineland. This is the company, which owns the so-called Terminator technology. It is now threatening Monsanto with an 81 million-dollar ‘break-up fee’ for backing out of the acquisition.

Actually Monsanto has no one but itself to blame for its present ills. Its overarching ambition, its greed and its scorn for the power of public opinion has brought it to a position where the global industry has begun to question the survival of the company as a commercially viable concern. Instead of engaging in a public dialogue with an obviously concerned civil society, Monsanto decided to use the power of the market and its influence with governments to quell public disquiet about its actions. In the US, it succeeded in convincing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that most stringent authority on food and drug safety, that there were no areas of concern in genetically engineered food ! Instead of a transparent policy on foods produced by this new technology, Monsanto aborted the efforts to have a national and international policy on labeling of Genetically Modified foods (GM foods ). In showing such contempt for consumer concerns and the right of the consumer to choose the food s/he wishes to eat, Monsanto succeeded in raising a whole host of real and imaginary fears. These are now coming back to haunt it.

In India, Monsanto conducted its field trials for genetically altered cotton (a Bt cotton variety ) along with its partners, the Indian seed company Mahyco. There was complete lack of transparency about the tests. No public disclosure was made about the nature and scope of the tests. The local farmers were not informed about what was being tested and what the dangers of such tests were. Nor was the consent of the local farming community taken. Farmers were not informed about the precautions they must take . Most seriously, standard bio-safety guidelines were flouted concerning isolation distances and physical containment of the plots where the transgenic cotton was being grown. For behaving in this arrogant fashion, Monsanto had to face the ire of the Indian farming community and the Indian people. There is now a public interest litigation against it and Monsanto has become a bad word in Indian civil society.

At the level of the science, adopting and promoting the terminator technology is an example of Monsanto’s unbridled greed. This technology of producing sterile seeds incapable of germinating, is geared to only one purpose : total control of the seed sector. This will lead to high, monopolistic prices for seeds and the utter marginalisation of the world’s poor farmers. This single policy has done more to wipe out Monsanto’s self-constructed image as a pro-farmer company dedicated to removing hunger, than all its other acts put together. So great has been the revulsion at the greed of this Life Science giant that governments and institutions have come out with bans against the Terminator. Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation was constrained to issue an appeal to Monsanto to stop the Terminator in the interest of science and the public good.

Another sin of commission being laid at Monsanto’s door is the push for the rigid regime of Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) which is embodied in the TRIPs chapter of the WTO. Although Monsanto is not alone in pressurising the US government, the other gene giants being fulsome partners, it is the most visible face opposing flexible IPRs for developing countries and pushing for straight patents on seeds. The seed patent is designed to establish monopolies and to steal from the farmers of developing countries the land races and traditional varieties that companies use as the foundation material for new varieties. The furore against seed patents is strong and vocal in Asia , Africa, Latin America as also in pockets in Europe and the US. If Monsanto does not retract its push for monopolistic IPR regimes, the going will get even harder for the company which should expect to face large scale boycotts.

Monsanto’s troubles are far from over. It is seen as the single point focus of all that the public perceives is wrong with biotechnology. And there precisely lies the trouble. It would be a colossal mistake to weld Monsanto and Biotechnology into one identity. So that rejection of Monsanto would indirectly lead to rejection of biotechnology . Biotechnology as a science and a technology has significant potential for developing countries in the form of perhaps more and better food. Even though the direction of research in the hands of the trans-nationals like Monsanto do not allow one to believe that this could be true !

Monsanto’s ( and others’ ) misuse of genetic engineering for personal aggrandizement has been on such a colossal scale that one could easily overlook the fact that this technology could indeed have something to offer. It would be shortsighted to damn the technology just because a strong case is emerging for damning Monsanto. When civil society puts Monsanto in the dock it should be sure that it is the company’s performance that is being judged, not the science of genetic engineering. The evaluation of that science will have to take place in a different place and using a different set of standards.

Thursday, July 29, 1999


Suman Sahai

It has just been brought to light that the earlier consensus on abandoning the much reviled Terminator technology has been breached. The Terminator is alive again. Astonishingly, this step has not come from the corporate sector but from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Two years ago, in the face of widespread condemnation and a personal appeal made by Gordon Conway of the Rockefeller Foundation, Monsanto which was at that point set to buy Delta -Pineland ( co holder with the USDA of the terminator patent) had agreed to suspend any plans to commercialise the terminator technology. The Agriculture Secretary of the US and officials of the Agriculture ministry had promised at that time that the USDA would not support further Terminator research nor permit its use in breeding programs for public release. And now this shocking reversal.

The Monsanto acquisition of Delta-Pineland did not materialise ultimately and Monsanto for the time being would appear to be out of the terminator picture. But in a really nasty turn around, it now turns out that the USDA has positioned itself as radically as the corporate sector and has every intention to revive the terminator technology. According to RAFI, a leading Canadian NGO, apparently there was no commitment to accepting the voluntary ban and the USDA had long ago decided that abandoning the Terminator was not an option.

The USDA received the first of three patents on genetic seed sterilization, jointly with Delta & Pine Land — the world’s largest cotton seed company, in 1998. At its recent board meeting held just days ago, the Advisory Board was informed that the USDA has decided not to unilaterally terminate its contractual agreement with Delta and Pine Land, despite the fact that they have the legal option to do so. On the contrary, it would explore the possibility of restricting its exclusive licensing of its Terminator patents to, Delta & Pine Land, so as to expand the scope of its licensing options.

Terminator technology caught the public attention in India when a band of ill- informed farmers in Karnataka mistakenly thought that Monsanto's transgenic cotton variety , contained the terminator gene. Thanks to this , attention was deflected from Monsanto's shoddy and alarmingly careless field trials of Bt cotton but terminator seeds got better known. Terminator technology is the genetic engineering of plants to produce sterile seeds. It has been widely condemned as a dangerous and morally offensive application of agricultural biotechnology.

The Terminator technology is developed with tools of genetic engineering. Here two gene systems have been brought into play to produce seeds with an in built mechanism that aborts development of the embryo so that germination can not take place and the seed is rendered sterile. The self -destructing seeds are actually hybrids produced by hybridising two transgenics, each containing one of the two gene systems. It is interesting that even when the two gene systems are brought together in the hybrid seed they are viable and can germinate.

In order to control the induction of sterility, a chemical switch has been built in . This switch can be activated by soaking the seeds in tetracycline . Once the tetracycline soaks into the seed tissue, it switches on one of the gene systems which sets in motion the chemical process which will abort the embryo. So in practice, the seed company can produce as much of the seed as they want and just before selling it to the farmer, they can treat the seeds with tetracycline to switch on the sterility inducing gene system.

The seeds provided by the company will grow for one generation and provide a harvest but the seeds produced will be sterile. This will mean the destruction of livelihoods of some 14 crore farmers in the world who depend on farm-saved seeds. In India, the majority of the farming community is self reliant in seed production and does not access seeds from companies. The Terminator concept is one development in agricultural research which has nothing to do with crop improvement or public good . It has only been developed to establish the total monopoly of multinational companies in the seed sector since the technology would make the patent system redundant by making the seed itself sterile and forcing the farmer to go back to the companies.

The Indian government has placed a ban on the import of terminator seeds but there are disturbing new developments in this field which do not bode well for the future. Given the recent history of international negotiations in the field of biotechnology , it is to be anticipated that the US will now increase pressure on members of WTO to accept terminator technology and make it part of the international regime.

Apart from the outcry from developing countries, people in the developed countries are also strongly critical of the terminator seeds. Most civil society groups have called for bans and have demanded that such research be stopped completely since it is totally anti-farmer, will increase risks to food security and has no purpose than to maximise corporate profits.

During the UN Biodiversity Convention meetings in Nairobi in May, the delegates agreed to a moratorium on all field testing and commercialization of Terminator and other similar technologies. Many countries requested an outright ban on Terminator,

and others expressed the concern that Terminator could be used as a trade weapon to force them to obey US trade and patent laws. Some countries even see Terminator as a form of biological warfare since poor farmers could become dependent on seeds that they are prohibited from saving.

Indian policy makers both at the scientific and bureaucratic level must be vigilant about these developments. If the USDA has taken this step, it will be reflected in US policy. The Commerce Ministry must prepare its response for the negotiations in the WTO with respect to the Agreement on Agriculture as also the prospect of setting up a working group on biotechnology . India and other developing countries must bolster the conditions of the biosafety protocol and insist on terminator seeds being kept out. There is widespread anger at the Terminator development and this anger must be used to block this essentially anti-farmer technology from translating into reality.

Wednesday, July 21, 1999


Suman Sahai

The argument put forth by the corporations marketing GM technology is that it will end world hunger ! That is simply not true! Whereas it is true that GM technology theoretically has the potential to increase food production and improve the nutritional quality of food , it is not being used by its dominant practitioners, the private corporations to produce either more or better food . It also needs to be pointed out that producing more food is not going to solve the problem of hunger. As our buffer stocks in India cross 40 million tons, we continue to have pockets of extreme poverty and hunger. Hunger will go only when the poor have money to buy food. Raising food production will therefore have to go hand in hand with increasing incomes of the poor.

Even as the Life Science corporations that control GM research , project themselves as those who will slay the demons of hunger, their focus is on commercial agriculture, not food. Their research is not targeted towards the needs of small farmers. It is aimed at herbicide tolerant varieties of soybean; Bt cotton , Bt corn (for animal feed and sugar syrup ) and the flavr savr tomato. The opponents of GM technology legitimately ask why there are no research investments in crops relevant to the poor, like legumes and pulses, sorghum, millets, cassava and yam? Why is there research on tobacco but not on Lathyrus sativus (khesari dal), the prolonged consumption of which leads to a wasting of the limbs. Why is the corporate sector not doing any work on drought resistance and salinity tolerance ?.

Control of GM technology.

There are serious reservations about the secrecy in the way that GM technology is practiced. It is necessary to create open and transparent systems so that information about GM technology is available to people. The debate on the risks and benefits should be publicly conducted. Reasonable data should be accessible to the public that wants to satisfy itself about the safety or desirability of a particular crop. Independent experts must conduct Field trails of GM crops. At the moment the trend is in -house testing so that the agencies interested in releasing a particular variety, conduct their own trials. This is not credible.

Broad patents and other monopolistic IPR regimes and finally the 'Terminator' technology have caused a public outcry against corporate greed. The use of sterile seed technologies as an instrument of control must be banned. IPRs should be limited to Plant Breeder's Rights and special exemptions from IPRs should be provided for the really poor farmers

Safety issues

GM crops have raised fears about human health, environmental safety and impact on sustainable food production by increasing genetic erosion in the field.

Human health concerns centre around the use of antibiotic markers which are now being phased out. In Europe clearance to GM crops is not given if they contain antibiotic markers. The second health concern is about the likely allergenicity and toxicity of novel foods containing foreign genes.

Environmental concerns are primarily about genetic pollution by foreign genes being transferred along with pollen. We know that this kind of gene transfer happens but we don't yet know its impact. Where the impact will be decidedly negative is in centres of genetic diversity of crop plants. Regions that are centres of origin of particular crop plants must be treated with the utmost caution, perhaps even be out of bounds for GM crops.

We need a lot more data about pollen transfer, and horizontal gene transfer in crops relevant for developing countries. So far pollen and gene transfer studies have been conducted essentially on species and relatives of European crops, under European and American conditions. Most of the genetic diversity is located in developing countries so very great caution will have to be exercised before putting GM crops in the field, in order to prevent accidents leading to genetic pollution.

Should GM technology be a priority for India ?

In India, where post harvest losses run from 15 % to 30 %, the question needs to be asked whether India should invest in GM technology to increase food production. Or should it invest its scarce resources into improving post harvest technologies to minimise losses. Should we not be investing in better storage, better transportation, value addition and processing and increasing the shelf life of perishable foods ?

Research focus in India

If GM research is to be conducted, then research priorities must be clearly set. The target must be food crops of relevance to small farmers and the poor and those crops where conventional breeding has not been successful. The most obvious example is pulses..

GM research targeted at pulses would make sense but GM research targeted at brinjals , as is the case in a premier research institution in Delhi, makes a mockery of science and the social responsibility of science. Public money must be conscientiously and carefully spent to achieve the maximum public good. India allots a modest sum for research and public spending in research is declining. This is not a good trend and at a time like this , research priorities must be very sharply focussed .

Finally, GM technology has clearly reached the market too early. It is still an immature technology with too many unknowns. The science needs a lot of cleaning up and large numbers of studies are needed to clarify safety issues. The science must continue, to provide information, which will help to decide on the ultimate safety of these crops, but there should be a brake on cultivation till we have more data. India is a centre of diversity for important food crops. It needs to proceed with extreme caution with respect to the likely transfer of foreign genes through transgenic crops.

Sunday, February 28, 1999

The Bt - Terminator issue : rampant confusion

Suman Sahai

Field trials of a genetically altered cotton variety (Bt cotton ) conducted by the American company Monsanto have provided the grounds for rampant confusion with respect to new genetic techniques in agriculture. Keeping pace with the confusion is the range of opinions being expressed for and against Bt and terminator. Bt stands for Bacillus thurengensis which. as the name suggests is a kind of bacteria. The Terminator technology is the monstrous new genetic tool by which you can design seeds with in built sterility.

The Bt technology which was developed about ten years ago is designed to confer disease resistance to certain crops against pest attacks. The essentially simple technology has involved cutting out a gene from the bacterium called Bacillus thuringensis and transferring it into a plant, in this case a cotton variety. The reason why this approach is being tried in plant types is because it provides an opportunity to build a biological pesticide into the plant itself, thus reducing its dependence on external chemical pesticides with their known deleterious effects

Cotton pests, specially bollworm are a very major problem ,as the spate of recent cotton farmer suicides have shown in the most tragic way, Much of the chemical pesticide on the market is adulterated or spurious and therefore not effective. The in built pesticide approach is very attractive for two reasons. One, the farmer is not sold short by unscrupulous pesticide dealers and two, the environment is spared the toxic burden of chemical sprays leaching into soil. air and water and poisoning them. However, the crucial question is does this approach really work in the field ? Recent research results would tend to show that the Bt mode of pest resistance , that is the gene construct which was effective in providing resistance appears to be breaking down . This means that it is not producing the bacterial toxin in the cotton plant as it was originally intended to do and therefore not conferring resistance to bollworm. The second way in which the Bt resistance is failing is by creating bollworm strains that are becoming resistant to the Bt toxin and not being affected by it.

The other danger that is posed by the Bt cotton and all other transgenic varieties, is the danger of the foreign gene contained in the transgenic can escape and move into related plant species. This is possible via cross pollination. The pollen cells of the transgenic plant contain the foreign gene like every cell of the transgenic plant does. During pollination, pollen carrying the foreign gene can fertilise other plants that are not transgenic . The pollen can in addition fertilise and therefore transfer the foreign gene into related and wild species . Since the transgenic technology is so new, we do not know what effects foreign genes like bacterial genes can have if they start moving around from species to species. Once they are out in the field, we can not control them. There is serious apprehension on this score. Scientific studies have shown that pollen can be transferred across very large distances and can transfer the foreign gene into plants growing far away. The dangers of gene pollution of this kind are therefore very real and that is the reason why testing for transgenics in the field has to be conducted under strictly controlled conditions which are specified in biosafety protocols designed for these varieties. The biosafety regime includes safeguards like physical containment , covering the field with plastic sheets during pollination and land tracts isolating the experimental plots from farmers fields. In addition to this, data needs to be collected from the field constantly to see whether the foreign gene has escaped from the experimental plots to neighboring fields.

To return to Monsanto and its transgenic tests, the company should be penalised for its cotton trials not because the variety contains the terminator gene but because the company has flouted all biosafety regulations. This could mean much more than endangering famers crops in nearby fields, such negligence cold carry the foreign gene goodness knows where and with what consequences. This is a very grave offence . It may not be far fetched to accuse Monsanto of being callously negligent in their field trials because they think they can get away with cutting corners and doing shoddy tests in India which they would not dare to do in their home country the United States .

In India awareness about the new developments in genetics and agriculture is very poor, specially in rural areas . Never mind the farmers, what is shocking is the utter ignorance of the scientists and scientific institutions working on the new areas in genetics and biotechnology. It may be recalled that just a few months ago , the experimental plots with standing crops of a transgenic variety had to destroyed in the field in Delhi since safety regulations were not being complied with. This was incidentally at a reputed national facility. Apart from biosafety requirements, transgenics can not be tested in the field without the informed consent of the region’s farmers. Monsanto has been conducting its tests over the heads of local farmers, without taking them into confidence or informing them. This is an obnoxious attitude apart from being a dangerous one. Monsanto’s license to test Bollgard cotton should be cancelled for these reasons .

Now to come to the Terminator. This technology is also based on a genetic construct. Here two gene systems have been brought into play to produce seeds with an in built mechanism that aborts development of the embryo so that germination can not take place and the seed is rendered sterile. The self -destructing seeds are actually hybrids produced by hybridising two transgenics, each containing one of the two gene systems. It is interesting that even when the two gene systems are brought together in the hybrid seed they are viable and can germinate. In order to control the induction of sterility, a chemical switch has been built in . This switch can be activated by soaking the seeds in tetracycline . Once the tetracycline soaks into the seed tissue, it switches on one of the gene systems which sets in motion the chemical process which will abort the embryo. So in practice, the seed company can produce as much of the seed as they want and just before selling it to the farmer, they can treat the seeds with tetracycline to switch on the sterility inducing gene system.

When the farmer buys this seed from the company, he can grow one crop from it but the seed that sets in his crop when it matures, will not have the ability to germinate. The farmer will thus not be able to save viable seed from his crop for the next sowing and will be forced to return to the seed company for new seed. This establishes total control of the seed company on production and sale of seed. The terminator technology is miles ahead of the patent system in establishing the monopoly of the multinational seed companies on the seed markets of the developing world. The avowed goal of multinational companies is to capture the vast potential of the seed business in India and China and the countries of South and South East Asia, all burgeoning agricultural countries with growing seed markets.

At present the terminator gene system is being tried out in cash crops like cotton and tobacco. In this context it is alarming that Monsanto with its big stake in cotton varieties has bought the Delta & Pineland company, co-owners along with the US government of the terminator technology . This means that Monsanto now owns the terminator gene systems and if it does not have a terminator cotton today, it almost certainly will have one tomorrow. This must be anticipated and Indian agriculture policy must take the requisite legal steps to ensure that that Monsanto can not bring terminator cotton into India either for testing or for commercial use.

Cotton and tobacco however are only the first focus of the terminator system. In principle this sterility inducing mechanism can be incorporated into any kind of crop. The next round of crops that are to be tried out are essential food crops like rice, wheat , pulses and millets. If the terminator technology should be successfully transferred into these crops (and there appears to be no reason why it can not ), the implications for global sustenance and food security could be quite horrific. Rice and wheat are the staple food of three quarters of the world’s population. With pulses under the terminator hammer, all aspirations of adding nutritional security to rudimentary food security, would fly out of the window. For those who argue that no one is compelled to buy seeds from MNCs and those who wish to, can continue to get their seed from wherever they are getting them today, do not understand the fundamentals of plant breeding, seed production and the practice of agriculture.

With the new breed of controlling instruments like patents and terminator, or for that matter , the transgenic and the hybrid, the control of the seed company over seed production is complete, to the exclusion of any participation by the farmers. With these instruments of control playing in tandem with an inexplicable and highly detrimental science policy that is coming into force in India and other developing countries, the farmer will be painted into the corner for essentially two reasons . The first is the fact that public sector institutions like the Indian Agricultural Research Institute ( IARI ) or the stations of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) that are the centres of agricultural research and plant breeding are facing tremendous cuts in their research budgets. These centres produce new varieties of all crop types constantly . These new varieties are available to the farmers who produce seed and disseminate it. The farming community has thus emerged as the nation’s largest seed producer and distributor, producing over 85% of the country’s seed requirement.

Now with severe reductions in research funds, the capacity of public institutions to breed new varieties will also be severely diminished. In time they will cease to be the primary source of new varieties. This space will be occupied by private seed companies, specially foreign seed companies who have been clamouring for entry into developing country seed markets. When private seed companies become the primary suppliers of new varieties then certain things will happen. First, the farmer as seed producer will be finished off . Second, the range of varieties produced in each crop will decrease , causing even worse genetic erosion than we are facing today. This will happen because production in seed companies is guided by profit margins, not the compulsion to provide a range of reasonably priced seeds . As past experience has shown, MNCs produce just one or two varieties and then push them on the market.

The other thing that will happen is that the farmer’s source of new varieties will increasingly become only the private seed company. How will this happen ? It needs to be understood that crop varieties growing in a specific area do not grow there successfully for ever. A particular variety which has been producing good results for the last few years could suddenly lose its disease resistance and become susceptible to pests . The soil and water conditions could change, salinity may increase or water logging take place. Deforestation in nearby areas could change the micro climate . Many things happen in nature that can cause the collapse of a variety which had been well adapted and growing successfully .

When this happens, the variety needs to be replaced and another one brought in which can reintroduce the characteristics of yield and disease resistance. Given the fact that the public research institutions are getting pushed out of the business , the source for new varieties will increasingly become the private seed company. Once this happens, they will sell their seed on their terms and the farmer’s choice will be restricted to buying from the seed company or giving up agriculture. In this fashion, the imperative of varietal replacement in the field will eventually force the farmer to turn to private companies for seed.

If the terminator technology is allowed to enter India the consequences could be mayhem in Indian agriculture leading to reduced availability of food and possible starvation deaths. This is no far fetched doomsday scenario. It is known that pollen carries the foreign genes of transgenic crops across large distances and transfers it into other crops. The terminator gene through the method of cross pollination could reach all kinds of crops in all kinds of places, inducing large scale sterility. If one keeps in mind that the terminator application is planned for staple food crops, large scale sterility can only have one consequence : imperilled food security and near certain starvation deaths.