Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Flopped BN Bt cotton leaves ICAR red-faced-Admits Misuse Power-TIMES OF INDIA

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Flopped BN Bt cotton leaves ICAR red-faced


A series of failures on part of agricultural scientists at different levels to maintain scientific rigour while developing a new variety of Bt cotton has resulted in Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) having egg on its face. Bikaneri Narma (BN), projected by ICAR as Indian variety of Bt cotton, has been found to contain gene from cotton variety developed by Monsanto, a farm product multinational.

Scientists involved in developing BN Bt cotton did not follow the scientific procedures to cross-check the presence of any contamination in the seeds before giving it to farmers for commercial cultivation. The variety developed by University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) Dharwad, under the guidance of BM Khadi, has been found to contain Mon-531 gene instead of BN la106 truncated cry1 AC gene supplied by Ananda Kumar, director of National Research Centre for Plant Biotechnology (NRCPB), an ICAR institute in Delhi to the university.

Deputy director general (DDG) crop sciences Dr SK Datta of ICAR in 2009 stopped any further multiplications of seed when he was told about the presence of Monsanto gene. ICAR director general S Ayyappan told TOI he would constitute an expert committee to look into the issue. However, predecessors of Ayyappan and Dutta did not appear to have taken required care while asking UAS Dharwad to commercialize the variety through city-based Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR). They failed to check the purity of variety even after an alert on presence of Monsanto gene in the material was sounded by the Bt referral lab of CICR.

Proceedings of two meetings (obtained by some UAS scientists under RTI and available with TOI), held in ICAR under the chairmanship of DDG, crop science, PL Gautam and SK Datta respectively show that the council was more than keen on commercializing and popularizing the variety in 2008 than heeding to warning signs.

Khadi admits his mistake to misuse his power

BM Khadi had brought the seeds from his university to CICR after taking over as CICR director. In 2005, he involved CICR in conducting bio-safety trials and seems to have misused his power as director. Now, he admits to his mistake. "Something went terribly wrong during multiplication of seeds but it is difficult to say when and how. I admit to the presence of Monsanto gene in our material. This is probably a contamination caused by cross-pollination during trials. When we got complaints from farmers for poor results in the crop we informed the DDG crop science (Gautam) but he asked us to continue the programme. I am a breeder and do not understand molecular biology," he said.

Khadi also seems to have manipulated things in his favour by being a member of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee ( GEAC) which cleared the products for genetically modified products during 2008. But now he admits that his presence in regulatory body was wrong as someone who's product is under examination cannot be a member of the regulatory committee.

Other experts in ICAR do not buy this argument. They say that the five scientists involved in the project, IS Katageri, HM Vamadevaiah, SS Udikeri, BM Khadi and Polumetla A Kumar were asked to withdraw their paper from Current Science published in volume 93, number 12, dated December 25, 2007, describing the work titled 'genetic transformation of an elite Indian genotype of cotton (Gossypium hirstum) for insect resistance, but the scientists did not do so.

Dutta admits something has gone wrong in the science and promised action against defaulters. Kumar, who gave the gene to Khadi, says the contamination happened at UAS end. But he too agreed that the gene given to UAS was borrowed from Prof Altosaar of Canada. "We are calling it a NRCPB gene as it belongs to us now as per agreement between NRCPB and the professor. It contains only 1850 base pairs compared to Monsanto that has 3600 pairs. I have not cheated anyone as I told Khadi about the origin of gene. My role is only to supply gene. Things went wrong at UAS end," he said.

Keshav Kranthi, who took over as acting director from Khadi, says he followed the commercialization procedure in good faith. "Since CICR was not involved at any step in development of the product except bio-safety trials and commercialization, the onus of explaining the presence of Monsanto gene or contamination lies with UAS alone," he said.

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