Thursday, December 7, 2006


Suman Sahai

Governments all over the world are facing public distrust regarding the safety of GE foods, since the public does not trust the food safety testing procedures, whereas the governments claim them to be safe.

An increasing number of Indian NGOs, farmers’ organizations and common citizens are becoming vocal in their criticism of Genetically Engineered (GE) crops and foods. Farmers have set ablaze fields where trials of genetically engineered crops were being conducted and questions have been asked in Parliament about the status of such crops and foods in India.

Public distrust of GE Foods originated in Europe and it remains strongest there. So far, opposition has not been particularly visible in the US, although consumer concerns have been voiced. Surveys in the US show that most American respondents are willing to eat GE foods and do not feel threatened by it. In India, the ground is fuzzy, the level of awareness is poor except for select groups, but a nascent opposition is building up.

The greater public acceptance of GE foods in the US is anchored in the fact that the scientific community made an attempt to engage with the public on the applications of this technology. When recombinant DNA technology was discovered and its potential for applications in agriculture and pharmaceuticals began to unfold, American scientists organized the Asilomar Conference in the early seventies. These discussions included a risk benefit analysis of this new technology by which genes could be shifted around across the species barrier. The public was, at least to some extent, included in the debate and the scientists decided on a moratorium for a few years on application, to understand the technology better. This engendered confidence in the scientific community.

Unlike the US, European nations did not engage in such an exercise. Discussions with the public were not held. Scientists remained in ivory towers doing science and the public was not aware of what was happening in the laboratories. They feared the worst - perhaps monsters were being hatched in test tubes. The shameful eugenics program of the Nazi regime when "genetically inferior" races like Jews and gypsies were gassed to death, tarred the science of genetics. Understandably, genetics was seen as a tainted science, its manipulation for any purpose, undesirable.

Burdened with this past, people in European countries had to suffer the abominations of the food scandals stemming from the Mad Cow Disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy ) when infected beef was defended by the British government as perfectly safe for human consumption. Then the link was shown to a human disorder called Jacob- Creuzfeldt syndrome and all hell broke lose. The British government was shown to be lying to its people and engaged in a cover-up exercise to protect beef revenues at the cost of risking the health and lives of its people.

As if this was not enough, close on the heels of the beef scandal came the revelations, long denied, that dioxin laced animal feed was fed to cattle in Belgium. What made everything insupportable was the denial by the government and regulatory authorities that there was no wrongdoing, there was no dioxin. The trust between government and people, if any was left after the Mad Cow terror, vanished. In the eyes of the people, specially the radicals, the government lied routinely to the people and could not be trusted.

Against this backdrop came GE technology and the effort to market GE foods. The government said it was safe. The regulatory authorities said it was safe. Nobody believed a word. Activists and law-abiding citizens applauded as fields with GE crops were destroyed in the UK. In a final blow, the courts let off those charged with tearing up fields planted with GE crops . The protest spread across the world.

In addition to all this, there is resentment at the element of corporate control and the fact that six mega- corporations who have styled themselves the Life Science Corporations control agricultural biotechnology almost entirely. The most notorious of these, Monsanto has so attracted the ire of civil society for its so-called ‘terminator’ technology, that it is facing an anti- trust lawsuit in Washington. The aggressive intellectual property rights regime pushed by the corporations has raised the hackles of even moderate campaigners.

In today’s climate, people tend to be well informed and access data efficiently, they are mindful of special interests, distrustful of governments and disinclined to defer to the opinion of scientists and experts who they do not hold in any special awe. Governments seem to have lost the trust of the people in both developed and developing countries and a government endorsement of food safety is more likely to be met with scorn than trust. Corruption plays a role. Many Indians believe that both bureaucrats and political leaders can be ‘bought’ to make statements and policies favouring vested interests and that it is no different in the food sector.

Apart from this crisis of confidence, there is the angle of consumer attitude. The fact is that GE foods so far do not show any advantage over conventional foods. They are not better tasting or more attractive looking, neither are they more nutritious or cheaper. Whereas there are no visible benefits, there is the very real possibility of risks to the environment and to human health, as numerous studies would indicate.

The reasons for the many strands of resistance to GE foods will have to be understood and taken on board if the dialogue is to continue to some point of resolution and a coherent policy can be made. It is silly for protagonists of the technology in the government and in the private sector to accuse the public of ignorance.

It also serves little purpose to insinuate that there are vested interests behind the lobbying positions of NGOs and that the pesticide lobby is using NGOs to resist Bt cotton so that pesticide sales can continue unabated. This is a juvenile argument and will backfire.

To allow a fair and critical evaluation of genetically engineered crops and foods, policy making in this area will have to be open to public scrutiny. Equity and justice will have to define regimes for intellectual property protection. Risk benefit analysis must be conducted in an open and transparent manner.

Monitoring of field trials should be done by independent experts and include NGOs. The informed public will have to become a partner in the dialogue on GE foods and in decision making. The agenda of research on GE crops will have to be determined after consultations with stakeholders. Who benefits from Roundup Ready soybean except Monsanto and why should the public take on all sorts of real and imagined risks so that Monsanto can line its pockets ? Or Syngenta? Or Bayer?

Monday, September 11, 2006

Can Our Regulatory System Deliver Safe GE Foods: The Bt Brinjal case

Suman Sahai

No studies have been conducted so far to assess the socio-economic impact of Bt brinjal.

More over, nobody can predict whether consumers will accept the new type of brinjal.

The Supreme Court has passed an interim order directing the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) not to give any further approvals for field trials of genetically engineered crops and other products til further notice

This interim order will hold only until the GEAC has responded and when the Court will review their decision. Too much should not be read into this temporary restriction as the Supreme Court has made it very clear in its statement that it is not inclined to order large scale curbs on field trials.

This interim injunction has a bearing on the proposed approval for Large Scale Trials (LST)for Bt brinjal, which is poised to become India's first genetically engineered food crop. Civil Society Groups had raised objections to granting approval to a food crop because of safety concerns and the lack of clarity on the kind of safety tests conducted on Bt brinjal and their outcomes. The GEAC has withheld permission to the Mahyco seed company for LST until an expert committee has evaluated the comments sent in by concerned citizens.

According to the GEAC, the LSTs will be subject to several conditions even if they are granted approval. In fact, there are many issues that have not been addressed. For instance, though the GEAC has proposed the involvement of Gram Sabhas in the LSTs for which the state agriculture universities would provide the technical support, the module for such support has not been decided, nor is it clear how it would be provided and what it would include. If the gram sabhas object and do not approve of the trials, would their objections be considered? Would the gram sabhas be informed about the health and environmental implications of the GE crop, or about the gene flow and increased risk of weediness?

The only information available on the website of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF)is a brief background note on the development of Bt brinjal and presentations made by the Mahyco company. On the advice of Ministry of Environment and Forests, the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR)has conducted field trials of Bt brinjal independently, using its own protocol during Kharif seasons 2004-05 and 2005-06. But, the results of these trials are neither published anywhere nor placed on the Ministry's website for public viewing.

Similarly, the comments of the Monitoring and Evaluation Committee that monitored the field trials conducted by the company are also not placed on the website. In the absence of these reports, the claim of the company that Bt brinjal is very beneficial and useful remains purely one sided.

According to the information on the official website, the company would be required to conduct a number of additional studies including foliage toxicity study in goats, analysis of fruit dry matter to determine differences in yield from the agronomic traits and flavour analysis of Bt and non-Bt fruits. It is not clear what these studies will achieve but what is striking is the minimal involvement of our vast network of public sector research institutions in conducting any of these investigations. As it is, government laboratories were involved in only four of the large number of studies conducted on environmental effects, soil analysis, substantial equivalence, protein expression in cooked fruits, toxicological and allergenicity assessment and nutritional content. In future studies also, public sector institutions are not being involved, nor has GEAC recommended any independent public sector study on any of these aspects. The concerned companies themselves will provide data on biosafety and food safety.

The GEAC, in its meeting, considered the demand made by the civil society that prior to approving LSTs of Bt brinjal, biosafety data should be posted on the Ministry's website for 90 days to give people sufficient time to provide feedback. But GEAC decided to post the list of biosafety studies; the data generated by the company and proposed protocol for LSTs and seed production for only 15 days. In any case, the public's comments are not available on the GEAC website, nor is there any commitment from the Ministry that the objections raised by concerned people will be posted on the website for public viewing. This is not a good precedent and makes a mockery of public participation.

Because of the disastrous performance of Bt cotton in several parts of the country leading to the Andhra Pradesh government filing a case against Mahyco-Monsanto, the need to conduct a socio-economic evaluation of any new genetically engineered crop prior to its release is finally being acknowledged by regulatory agencies like the GEAC.

Undertaking socio-economic evaluation became mandatory at least since September 2003 when the Cartagena Protocol The Biosafety Protocol requires socioeconomic assessment of new genetically engineered crops, particularly on small farmers and traditional methods of cultivation, as well as on indigenous knowledge.

No studies have been conducted so far to assess the socio-economic impact of Bt brinjal. Mahyco has said that socio-economic studies will be conducted along with the LSTs of Bt brinjal, but in the meantime the company has tried to prove through studies conducted by some foreign Universities that Bt brinjal offers economic benefits over conventional brinjal cultivation. Two studies are quoted in support of socio-economic advantages, one by Mark Chong,a business management graduate from the Singapore Management University who conducted this study as part of his doctoral thesis in Communications! The other is a study done by Vijesh Krishna and Matin Qaim of the University of Hohenheim in Germany. This study was supported by USAID, an aggressive promoter of Agbiotechnology. Matin Qaim is the author of the infamous and widely quoted study on Bt cotton in India, which was conducted exclusively on the experimental fields of Monsanto- Mahyco and which (not surprisingly) showed that the use of Bt cotton led to an 87%increase in cotton yield in India. Qaim and Zilberman's dubious paper was condemned by a series of commentators across the world and the abysmal performance of the Mahyco-Monsanto Bt cotton,despite the premature accolades engineered by Qaim and Zilberman, ensured that its provisional release was not renewed.

Mahyco seed company has quoted these two studies to make the point that international scholars have demonstrated that the socio-economic impact of Bt brinjal is positive for farmers and that they will benefit from increased yields and lower use of pesticides.

Let us examine the two papers and see what they say about the socio-economic benefits of Bt brinjal. Chong's paper is an exercise in risk perception, not evaluation of socio-econom-ic impact. The title itself says that: "Perception of the risks and benefits of Bt eggplant by Indian farmers". The study is premised on the hypothesis that the moral aspects of risk provide a better explanation of risk perception than the psychometric paradigm or Cultural Theory. The study uses Bt brinjal as a case study to assess whether moral aspects of risk figure in the risk perception of Indian farmers or whether economic benefits outweigh the perceived risks.

The study is a rather simple exercise to elicit responses from 100 brinjal farmers who have been provided a certain text containing information they must respond to. Their responses have been interpreted as their perception of risk. The text given to farmers for response is reproduced below. Its suggestiveness is evident.

"As you know, brinjal farmers in Maharashtra such as yourself stand to lose a large portion of their crop each year to pests such as the fruit and shoot borer. These farmers -like you –have been trying to control the pests by spraying pesticides,but pesticide application has a number of disadvantages.

To address this problem,a private company and two public institutions in India are now working to develop a new type of brinjal seed.This new seed is expected to offer significant protection against the fruit and shoot borer. At the same time, farmers who use the new seed will not need to spray any pesticide against the borer, nor will they need to invest in new equipment, tools, or fertilizers. The scientists who are developing this new variety say that it will look, feel and taste just like the brinjals you are growing now.But unlike ordinary brinjals, the new variety is 'injected' with a soil microbe that gives the plant its provariety is Bt brinjal and it works in basically the same way as the Bt cotton that has been introduced in Maharashtra and elsewhere in India. Bt is not known to be harmful to human or animal health.

However, experts have also cautioned that there are some risks :Bt brinjal seed will cost a few times more than ordinary brinjal seed. Moreover, nobody can predict at this point whether consumers will accept the new type of brinjal. Climactic conditions can also influence the level of yield farmers get from using Bt brinjal.

There are also some environmental risks: farmers adopting the new seed will need to follow strict guidelines, such as setting aside a small part of his plot to growing ordinary brinjals. If not, Bt brinjal will lose its ability to protect itself against the borer after a few years and farmers will then need to use even more pesticides than before to control the damage inflicted by the pest. If not carefully managed, using Bt brinjal may also lead to the growth of "superweeds" and other unforeseen environmental problems. So, while there are benefits in using Bt brinjal, there are also some risks …"

Please share with me any thoughts and feeling you have about this new brinjal seed. Is there anything you find objectionable about the new seed?

This is a fairly straightforward study to understand how farmers perceive risk and what factors will influence them to accept or reject a new crop technology. It says nothing about the socioeconomic impact of Bt brinjal. The other study by Krishna and Qaim is another piece of fiction on allegedly proving the socio-economic benefits of Bt brinjal. Actually speaking, this study attempts to study not the socio-economic impact of Bt brinjal at all, but the dynamics of profit in a model of public-private research partnership.

The conclusion, not surprisingly, is that a research partnership of this kind, which aims to develop a transgenic variety out of a proprietary technology (Bt gene) that is licensed to the public sector, will result in profit reduction for the private sector even though ample profit margins will remain. The paper equally unsurprisingly concludes that farmers will benefit when the transgenic variety is made available through the public rather than the private sector.

The study has nothing to do with the impact of adopting Bt brinjal but a projection of who will gain and how much, if the private and public sector collaborate in this kind of research. These results would apply as much to Bt brinjal, as to any other proprietary product, a fan or light bulb or a vaccine, developed by private-public partnership. The point is that this study, like the other one by Chong, does not deal with evaluating socio-economic impact and so sheds no light on the likely impact on farmers, particularly small, resource poor farmers if an expensive and complex technology like Bt brinjal is adopted. Nor does it contribute anything to understanding the obvious aspects like consumer and market acceptance .or the trade implications of adopting a transgenic food crop.It is disingenuous on the part of Mahyco to pass off these unrelated studies as socio-economic validation of Bt brinjal and it is hapless of the GEAC to accept it as such.

The Indian experience of the first GE crop, Bt cotton has not been a very good one. Several studies have demon started that the Bt technology is economically unviable and has failed to fulfil its promise of decreased pesticide use and increased yield. In addition, the biosafety of the Bt cotton plant has been questioned. There have been reports of allergic reactions in people who have been in contact with Bt cotton plants. Mortality of cattle and sheep have been

reported from Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, where the animals have grazed on Bt cotton plants left in the field. No pathological studies have been done to determine the cause of death of the animals that died, nor are any studies being conducted on long term feeding impact. It is likely that Bt cotton has invoked both allergic and toxic response in humans and animals, the Bt gene is after all, one that produces a toxin, but this must be properly tested. Without evaluating any of the evidence available on the allergic and toxic aspects of Bt cotton, the GEAC is moving ahead to grant permission to two food crops, Bt brinjal and Bt okra, both containing the same toxin gene. Rushing ahead to promote GE foods with such disregard for safety considerations is indefensible on the part of the GEAC.

In its defense of Bt brinjal, Mahyco claims that the crop is substantially equivalent to non-Bt counterparts in its chemical composition and that no statistical differences between Bt brinjal and non-Bt brinjal groups were observed.

This claim is based on tests carried out almost exclusively in private laboratories and submitted by Mahyco to GEAC, which has elected to accept such tests at face value. There are demands world-wide, as also in India, that data on biosafety testing should be conducted by independent experts with public participation, rather than by commercial companies with a vested interest in the sector. There are a growing number of studies pointing to the negative health

impact of GE crops and foods. Monsanto's own experiments on its GE maize Mon 863,showed severe organ damage in rat feeding studies. The Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organisation (CSIRO),Australia recently abandoned its project to develop peas, genetically engineered to protect it from a pest called pea weevil. It found that a new protein was formed that caused inflammation in the lungs and increased serum antibody levels of the mice that were fed GE peas.

The government of India recognises the need to label GE food, and its position in the labelling meetings of the Codex Alimentarius, has been consistently in favour of mandatory labelling. Accordingly, the Ministry of Health has drafted rules under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act to include labelling of Genetically Engineered food and food ingredients. At the moment there are no mechanisms in place to label GE food and food products, nor have any awareness programs been conducted to explain the nature of GE foods and the need for labelling them. For most consumers, especially rural consumers, GE foods are a black box and unless they are made aware of the nature of GE foods, labelling would be meaningless. Despite these big gaps in preparedness, the GEAC is all set to approve the LSTs of Bt brinjal, which would soon be followed by the approval for its commercial production.

There is as yet, no convincing reason to include genetically engineered foods in our food basket, whatever the Agriculture Minister might choose to say .Conventional breeding is still providing adequate choices in all crops; plenty of alternative approaches are available to provide good, healthy food; Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is known to be the only pest management strategy that will endure in the long run. The collapse in China of the Bt cotton crops shows the flaws of the Bt approach to disease resistance which has folded in just a few years.

None of this seems to inform our policy planners and executors of GE technology. Gene Campaign's writ petition in the Supreme Court has asked for a technically competent, transparent and inclusive regulatory process that is capable of taking informed decisions in a sector that is of such crucial relevance to the future of 70 crore farm families in this agrarian country. Little has moved on that front. There is no national policy yet, no improvement in the technical competence of the GEAC, which remains a piece of bureaucratic insanity, and little inclination to involve the public in the decision-making process. This, along with the strong inclination towards the goals of commercial companies rather than its farmers, makes India's regulatory system incapable of taking decisions in the public interest.

Sunday, July 30, 2006


Suman Sahai

Many crops of developing countries have a global value because of the special chemical compounds they contain like aromatic or other oils. If genetic engineering will modify common, commodity crops to produce these higher value chemicals, it will lead to displacement of the developing country products from valuable niche markets from where they can earn incomes, leading in turn to economic deprivation. Genetic engineering is providing alternative ways of producing commodities that have traditionally been supplied by developing countries. This has the potential of taking away the economic base of farmers who produce such products.

The production of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) from corn, a major GE crop bred for industrial applications like this, has undermined sugar prices and distorted sugar markets for cane sugar producers of developing countries like India. Surely, the massive agricultural subsidies of the EU and US for all agricultural products is a source of grave distortion in international agricultural trade but the creation of HFCS is also a major contributing factor in displacing cane sugar producers from the global sugar market.

Coconut is another victim of genetic engineering. Coconut provides high value oil used for edible and for industrial purposes. The main advantage of this oil is the high lauric acid that it contains. The US alone imports upwards of US$ 350 million worth of coconut and palm oil annually. Now genetic engineering is creating GE canola to produce the same special high lauric acid oil as coconut This research will have highly negative economic implications for farmers in coconut producing regions

Calgene has produced a high lauric acid rapeseed by using genes from the California Bay tree. This rapeseed will ultimately displace the coconut and palm kernel oil and deprive Asian farmers of revenues. The argument that coconut farmers could neverthelessl derive some income from other coconut products is being insensitive to the great difficulty with which developing country farmers are able to eke out a living. The loss of the coconut oil income, the farmers’ principal revenue opportunity in certain regions, will inflict severe economic hardship. This has to be understood in the context of the very limited opportunities for alternative or additional income sources in rural parts of Asia.

Intellectual Property Rights

The IPR issue, like much else in the GE story, is tailored for the corporations, not the farmers. It is an instrument that works against food and livelihood security and there is little evidence so far that it can contribute to increasing the production of food and removing poverty. Access to GE technology is largely impeded by the stringent IPRs that surround it.

Patent holders often refuse to license patents with broad claims to key technologies, to scientists and even to public sector institutions. Companies often seek patents not necessarily to conduct research themselves but to prevent research in areas that would threaten their monopoly. It is of concern that public research institutions are also getting into the patenting of plant technologies and research tools, further restricting access to genetic material and research data that are needed to cross complement research efforts.

Most of the basic technologies of genetic engineering are patented and the larger companies own these patents. These companies are reluctant to license many technologies to developing country organisations at an affordable cost. Patent laws do not require them to do so, so they are not obliged to grant any licenses if they prefer to control the technology themselves. This is part of the overall trend of corporate globalisation and it makes it very difficult for developing countries or public sector institutions to access new technologies or enter the research field.

Patents with an excessively broad claim are becoming increasingly problematic. They violate the ethical intent of patent law, which is to balance private gain with public good while leaving the way open for further innovation. Excessively broad claims like the one granted to Monsanto on all types of genetic transformation in all varieties of soybean (European Patent Number 301,749), are contrary to the original intention of patent law. They are monopoly instruments restricting useful research and therefore diminishing social welfare

The GURT technology

The Gene Use Restricting Technology (GURT) popularly known as the ‘terminator’ technology’ was kept in cold storage after widespread outrage at its anti-farmer focus but it is back on the corporate agenda and awaiting adoption.

GURT is an example of how genetic engineering has been used not to improve a crop or bring benefits to farmers but solely to enhance the control of the seed company over the variety they have bred. GURT is strictly speaking , the most stringent form of intellectual property rights, where the scientific process, not the legal, has been used to give the seed company complete control.

In the GURT technology two gene systems have been brought together 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 transgenic plants, each containing one of the two gene systems. To control the induction sterility, a chemical switch has been built in. Soaking the seeds in a chemical like tetracycline can activate this switch. 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 farmers buy this seed, they can grow one crop from it but the seed that sets in this crop on maturity, 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 obviates the patent system in establishing the monopoly of the seed company on the new seed. The farmer is reduced to a helpless consumer.

Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Monsanto in the Dock: Appeals indictment by MRTPC

Suman Sahai

Monsanto's trade practices are under the scanner of the MRTPC for selling its Bt cotton varieties at very high prices

Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech India Ltd. (MMB) has been indicted by the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission for charging exorbitant rates for its Bt cotton varieties containing Monsanto's proprietary Bt gene and for exercising a monopoly in India. MMB has gone into appeal to the Supreme Court.

The introduction of Bt cotton by Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech in India has been marked by controversy that refuses to abate. Bt cotton was approved for the planting season in 2002 amidst objections by Gene Campaign and other civil society groups that the base variety used by Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech - the MECH cotton varieties - were rated at best as modest, not good performers. Subsequently in all the three years for which it had eceived provisional permission, the MMB cotton was found to fail in almost all the states where it was cultivated, its performance being particularly disastrous in Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

Farmers suffered huge losses and the extreme indebtedness of resource poor farmers that led to tragic suicides was exacerbated by the exorbitantly priced MMB Bt cotton. Reports prepared by State Agriculture Departments echoed the findings of civil society groups like Gene Campaign, which had produced the first report on the field performance of Bt cotton and reported that over 60 percent of the farmers had suffered such heavy losses that they could not even recover their investment. (See table below). The Agriculture Minister of Andhra Pradesh conceded that Bt cotton had failed the farmers.

As against 300 to 400 per 450 gm bag charged for superior local cotton hybrids, MMB priced its Bt cotton at Rs1650 per bag, which they later raised to Rs 1800 per bag. Of the Rs 1650, Rs

1250 went to Monsanto as license fee for the use of Bt technology. Perhaps the license fee was increased when the price was hiked to Rs 1800. This is the highest license fee charged by Monsanto anywhere in the world. They charge about one-tenth this rate in China and Brazil. MMB also produces its Bt cotton in India as a hybrid, not as a true breeding variety. This consolidates their monopoly.

Farmers cannot save seeds from hybrids and must buy fresh seeds every season. In the case of true varieties, they can save seeds from their harvest and plant the next crop. Thus, the financial burden on the farmer is lowered. Besides, the Bt cotton strategy for pest control works better in a variety that contains two Bt genes rather than a hybrid containing only one Bt gene and is therefore only half as effective as the true variety.

After the failure of the Mahyco Monsanto Bt cotton, Gene Campaign had written to the then Agriculture Minister Sri Ajit Singh, making the demand that an enquiry should be conducted into the performance of Bt cotton and MMB be made to pay compensation to those farmers who had suffered losses. This is provided explicitly in the Indian law - the PPV-FR. MMB flatly refused to pay any compensation and neither the Ministry of Agriculture nor the GEAC (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee) took any action

Comparative income from Bt and Non-Bt cotton






Net Profit/Acre



Net Profit/Acre

(Per Cent)



(Per Cent)



Low yieiding







Medium yielding







High yielding







Ref. : Gene Campaign; Economic and Political Weekly, July 26, 2003.

against them. Subsequently, the AP (Andhra Pradesh) Government also claimed compensation from MMB for losses suffered by the farmers, a demand that was also rejected by the company, with the GEAC looking on.

The AP Government then banned the sale of MMB Bt cotton in the state. In the meanwhile, MMB had licensed the Bt technology to several Indian firms. On their initiative, the AP Government asked MMB to reduce the exorbitant license fees they were charging to something more reasonable, so that the seed could be more affordable to farmers. The steep price of GM cotton seeds was recognised as a major reason why the economics of Bt cotton was not working for many farmers. When MMB refused to do this, the AP Government and two farmer organisations moved the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission (MRTPC) against the company in January 2006 for charging "exorbitant" royalty for Bt Cotton.

On the instruction of the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission, the matter was investigated by the Director General of Investigation and Registration (DGIR). The DGIR report stated that MMB had failed to provide any rationale for the exorbitant license fees it charged. As there was no competition, the company was in a position to charge for the technology arbitrarily and unreasonably, thus establishing a monopoly. In an interim ruling, the MRTPC had directed Monsanto to reduce its technology fee in India to the rate it charged in China. Anticipating this, MMB had unilaterally reduced its license fee to Rs 900 per bag, but the MRTPC ruling could require Monsanto to cut down its license fee still further.

Having been indicted by the MRTPC, MMB has moved the Supreme Court challenging the order of the MRTPC directing it to fix a reasonable price for Bt cotton. It claims that the Commission has no jurisdiction to adjudicate on the issue as Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) issues and licensing of technology do not fall under the classification of goods or services; since there was no trade in goods. It may be pointed out here that by introducing IPRs into trade via the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) of the WTO, the WTO has, in fact, made IPRs as tradable goods, so MMB's position is without substance.

MMB further contends that there can be no case against it since the license fee is being charged for Monsanto's technology and know-how, which the sub-licensees further incorporate into their own seeds. This contention is also baseless. The sub-licensee for this gene construct is Mahyco Monsanto Biotech India Ltd (MMB), a joint venture between Monsanto and Mahyco. This means that the company has licensed the technology to itself. Further, the case is against the price of Bt cotton sold by the name of 'Bollgard', which incorporates the specific Bt gene construct patented and owned by Monsanto.

MMB further claims that there was no rule or guideline prescribed in the Indian law to determine the prices that a technology provider could charge from its sub-licensees. This assertion of the company is easily struck down by the provisions of the Competition Act,

which specifically prohibits any agreement between enterprises engaged in similar trade of goods as Monsanto and MMB are, which directly or indirectly determine the purchase or sale price.

MMB asserts that nothing in the law prevents an inventor of a new and useful product from allowing a person to use his product on payment of a fee for such use regardless of whether the inventor held a patent under the Indian law or not. When the patent law is applied in the same spirit, which recognises intellectual property with or without a patent grant, Section 83 (c) of the Patent Act can be invoked, which states quite clearly that the protection and enforcement of patent rights must contribute to the promotion of the technological innovation and to the transfer and dissemination of technology to the mutual advantage of producers and users of technological knowledge and in a manner conducive to social and economic welfare, and to a balance of rights and obligations. Section 83 (d) further says that the patent granted should act as an instrument to promote public interest especially in the sectors of vital importance for socio-economic and technological development in India.

Both provisions make Mahyco-Monsanto's position untenable.

In a further desperate bid to fight its indictment, Mahyco-Monsanto Biotechnology has submitted to the Supreme Court that its technology is in the nature of undisclosed information or trade secret. This is a misrepresentation and absolutely incorrect. The Bt technology is no secret. On the contrary, its identity and composition is very well known. The Bt construct used in Monsanto's Bollgard has been patented; a fundamental requirement on the grant of a patent is disclosure of the patentable subject matter. So, all the details of the Bt technology used in Bollgard cotton, which is being used in India, is in fact in the public domain and cannot be considered "undisclosed information" or "trade secret" by any stretch of the imagination. Further, it has been licensed widely in many countries of the world so the Bt cotton know-how has been passed on several times to a number of parties. There is nothing undisclosed or secretive about it. A trade secret is where the composition of the product is completely secret. For instance, Coca Cola protects its special soft drinks formula by a trade secret and this formula is not licensed to anyone. The recipe is undisclosed information and no one knows what is in it. That is not the case with the Bt technology.

The Supreme Court will certainly be able to see that the Mahyco-Monsanto case is entirely baseless. A correct decision invoking the law, especially the public interest components of it, will hopefully set down the conditions for technology transfer in India and prevent greedy corporations from exploiting Indian farmers, under the guise of introducing superior technology.