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Monsanto's gene-altered crops in India

(Monday, Feb. 10, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- S. SRINIVASAN, AP: BENAKENAKONDA, India - Here, under a blazing sun in a southern Indian cotton field 9,000 miles from U.S. biotechnology giant Monsanto Co.'s headquarters, Chikkappa Nilakanti has literally sown seeds of discontent.

Nilakanti is one of 55,000 farmers in India who recently planted cotton genetically engineered by Monsanto to fight pests without pesticides.

India permitted the crop into the country last year after a raucous four-year battle and that decision is still being hotly contested in a country that has always been skeptical of biotechnology.

Even now, no edible biotechnology crops are legally grown for consumption in India, the world's second-most populous country.

Nilakanti's small plot of land and thousands like it throughout India have become yet another front line in the global battle over biotechnology, which is demonized as the near-exclusive domain of the United States.

Still, slumping U.S. biotechnology companies are aggressively pressing to sell their wares in new places overseas, including pressuring the Bush administration to force open European markets.

St. Louis-based Monsanto is looking to shake off a year-long profit slide sparked by patent expirations, increased worldwide concern over biotechnology and a drought at home. The company forced its longtime chief executive to step down last month and promised angry stockholders it would do better this year. And so it is pinning some of its turnaround hopes on emerging international markets, including India.

India's cotton industry is notoriously inefficient: It has the most land under cotton cultivation but is only the third-largest producer of cotton. Consequently, Monsanto's promise of improving yields by as much as 60 percent resonated with the government.

Monsanto's cotton seed is spliced with genetic material taken from bacterium called bacillus thuringiensis and commonly referred to as BT. The bacterium harms bollworms but not people.

The biotech seed costs three times as much as the natural stuff, but Monsanto and its Indian partner, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co., promise that the cotton crop, brand name Bollgard, will increase farmers' yields and cut costs because fewer chemical pesticides are needed.

But Nilakanti and pockets of other Indian cotton farmers who planted the biotech cotton seed complained that the pricey technology was a bad investment because their yields have not improved. The ruinous boll weevils have not disappeared.

Nilakanti paid about $33 for a 450-gram packet of BT seeds, nearly four times the cost of traditional seeds.

Standing in his field, Nilakanti watched boll weevils pop up their heads as if in a greeting and then resume their business of eating away his cotton crop.

"BT bedaappa," Nilakanti said in his native tongue, Kannada. "I do not want BT."

Meanwhile, the same anti-biotechnology activists who fought to keep biotech cotton out of India have continued with their vocal campaign.

A survey conducted by an anti-biotechnology advocacy group, Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, called Monsanto's technology a failure, saying it has left "farmers in a great economic and livelihood crisis," and led to the emergence of "new pests and diseases."

Government and company officials dispute those findings and argue that the complaining farmers are in the minority. Even more gene-altered cotton is expected to be planted this year.

"BT cotton has done very well in all the five states where it was planted," said Ranjana Smatecek, Monsanto India's public affairs director.

Smatecek said Monsanto's genetically engineered cotton doesn't repel all bollworms but does reduce the amount of pesticide needed to control the pest. He said it's not surprising that farmers are finding bollworms on some of their engineered crops, because it takes up to three days for the insects to die.

Environment minister T.R. Baalu told Indian Parliament that Monsanto's cotton had performed "satisfactorily."

In the Feb. 7 issue of the journal Science, two Western professors published a paper supporting the government's position. David Zilberman of the University of California, Berkeley and Matin Qaim of the University of Bonn said they found that BT dramatically increased yields and significantly reduced pesticide use.

The study's authors argue that BT cotton and similar technologies involving genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, hold particular promise for poor farmers in developing nations.

"It would be a shame," Zilberman said, "if anti-GMO fears kept important technology away from those who stand to benefit the most from it."