Playing for profit

A new controversy that has arisen about Bt cotton in Gujarat has exposed how commercial considerations can influence claims about the efficacy of genetically modified (GM) seed varieties. Generally companies that develop and market GM seeds champion the strengths and merits of the seeds and defend them fiercely. But Monsanto, the multinational company that has developed the Bt cotton variety Bollgard, has now made a public announcement that the pink bollworm pest it was supposed to resist had developed immunity to the killer gene in the GM seed. The company says this has been observed in four districts in Gujarat. Interestingly, the Central Institute for Cotton Research, a government body, has denied the company’s claim and stated that it is not based on observations for a period long enough to form a conclusion and that faulty testing methodologies had been used to arrive at it. The situation is strange because a company is finding fault with its own product and a government agency is defending that product.

But the mystery is solved when it is realised that the company is trying to discourage the use of the Bollgard variety which does not yield big profits because of competition and low prices. Instead it is trying to promote a second generation variety that is sold at a high price and which has no great competition. It is all right for a company to promote its latest product. But it is wrong to denounce an earlier product of its own, on the basis of unsubstantiated findings, just to promote its business and increase profits. Monsanto’s announcement on the Bollgard variety’s failure creates confusion because the various claims about GM seeds, including their ability to resist pests, are still fiercely contested.  Its claim adds strength to the criticism about GM seeds.

That also shows that the multinational companies which do research on transgenic crops and develop seeds misrepresent data for the sake of better business. It strongly underlines the need for independent assessment and verification of their claims. GM technology is important for the development of agriculture. But there is the need for transparency about the scientific findings. More indigenous research in the public sector, which is not driven by commercial motives, will help in the development of a variety of GM products and in better evaluation of the claims made by private companies. The public and the farmers should go by the findings of such reliable research.

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