India's dream of low-cost indigenous Bt cotton ends

Commercialisation of homegrown strain stopped after contamination

India’s dream of having a low-cost Bt-cotton from the public sector has come to a screeching halt with the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) closing the doors on Bikaneri Nerma – the first indigenous Bt cotton.

It  was found that commercial seeds of the home grown strain developed at the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) in Dharwad were contaminated with Monsanto’s proprietary Bt gene instead of the domestic one.

“This is end of the road for Bikaneri Nerma. We will develop new better quality material. Bikaneri Nerma is now a closed chapter for ICAR,” Swapan Datta, deputy director general in charge of crop science at ICAR told Deccan Herald.

Even though Bt cotton in India has turned out to be a success story with as many as 35 companies selling 780 bt cotton hybrids, all of them are private firms, which sell expensive seeds costing Rs 930 for every 450 gm packet of seeds.

Bikaneri Nerma, on the other hand, was a low-cost option with a price tag of Rs 200 for 2 kg and had the potential to ch­a­nge the landscape completely. “It is a sinking feeling, combined with anger and anguish. We have given the private industry a million reasons to rejoice,” said an ICAR scientist who did not wish to be identified.

While ICAR stopped commercialisation of the first and only home-grown Bt cotton following its own investigation, the Karnataka government recently formed a committee to probe into the charges after the issue was highlighted in the Assembly.

Exactly four years ago, a team of scientists from the Central Institute of Cotton Research in Nagpur, UAS, Dharwad and National Research Centre for Plant Biotechnology (NRCPB) at Indian Agriculture Research Institute here announced the successful genetic transformation of an elite Indian cotton variety called Bikaneri Nerma.

The gene used for transformation was a truncated version of CRY1AC gene and not the same as Monsanto’s proprietary gene, which many private companies use to develop their own Bt cotton seeds. The difference between the two genes was explained in a scientific publication in the journal “Current Science” on December 25, 2007.

The gene was supplied by P Anand Kumar of NRCPB to the UAS for transformation and seed development. But seeds released by state seed corporations in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat were found to have the Monsanto gene rather than the indigenous one.

“We detected contamination in 2008. Seed production was stopped in 2009 and scientists were asked to clean up the contamination. We have eliminated all contamination now,” B M Khadi, dean at the UAS, who is at the eye of storm at the moment, said.

But how did the genetic contamination happened in the first place? Was it deliberate or sloppy experimentation? Datta refused to divulge the findings of the ICAR probe and Anand Kumar was not available for comment.

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