Feature Img
Bt Brinjal, a variety of genetically modified Brinjal plant.
Bt Brinjal, a variety of genetically modified Brinjal plant.

The ‘Intel Inside’ model has become the template for deploying agricultural biotechnology from American publicly-funded research institutions and private corporations to farmers in developing countries.

Just as the combination of Microsoft’s Windows software and Intel’s assurance of ever-increasing computing power drove the growth of the personal computer industry, genetically-modified disease, insect and stress tolerant traits developed for philanthropy or profit in the United States are being tailored for regional requirements by national partners for cultivation by farmers, says Vijay K. Vijayaraghavan, chairman of the Hyderabad-based Sathguru Management Consultants.

Sathguru is the South Asia coordinator for Agricultural Biotechnology Support Programme – II, a US government-funded initiative led by Cornell University to popularise GM crops. (ABSP II delicately calls itself an effort to enable farmers and consumers worldwide to make informed choices about bio-engineered products!).

In the case of insect-resistant Bt brinjal, whose release in India for commercial cultivation was stalled five years ago by then environment minister Jairam Ramesh, the gene, toxic to the fruit and shoot borer, was licensed by Monsanto, the US crop science company (2014 sales $15.85 billion) to Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco).

What was not heard in the din created by those opposed to the technology was that Mahyco had allowed Tamil Nadu Agriculture University, Varanasi’s Indian Vegetable Research Institute and the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, to incorporate the gene in open pollinating varieties of brinjal, whose seed farmers could save and use for free. Mahyco reserved the right to sell hybrid seeds.

While India spurned the offer, the Bangladesh Agriculture Research institute (BARI), went ahead and released the Bt varieties in October 2013 under the same arrangement with Mahyco as in India.

Those opposing Bt cotton, the only GM crop approved in India, cite as a reason the high cost of hybrids which cannot be re-used (without loss of vigour). The seed is under price control; a packet of 450 grams cannot be sold for more than Rs 930 ($15). Farmers do not seem to mind as 95 percent of India’s cotton acreage is now planted with the insect-resistant hybrids. They are possibly compensated by savings from reduction in pesticide sprays and crop damage.

Bt brinjal is being grown by 108 farmers in Bangladesh and the crop is now being harvested. Farmers have reported good gains from savings in pesticide sprays and higher prices as the fruits are unlikely to be damaged from inside.

Bharat Char, who leads biotechnology research at Mahyco, says savings can be as high as Rs.16,000 an acre.

Similarly, for late blight resistance in potatoes, the gene has been provided by the University of Wisconsin and Venganza, a private company. The potato incorporates modified bits of the late blight’s own gene, through a technique called gene silencing, which enters the disease-causing microorganisms when they attack potatoes, causing them to self-destruct.

Venganza is Spanish for revenge. Local varieties incorporating the gene are being developed by the Central Potato Research Institute, Shimla, BARI and Icabiograd, Indonesia’s institute for research in agricultural biotechnology.

Navigating the thicket of patents can be tricky. Vijayaraghavan explains in an article in the Journal of Intellectual Property Rights that scientists at Cornell University had found a naturally-occurring sugar called trehalose which helps plants cope with and recover from extreme stress. The university had patented a method to put the trait into rice varieties, but could not transfer it outside the US, as an MNC had secured protection for a similar technology.

A way out of the tangle was found by getting Greengene Biotech, a co-developer and co-patent applicant with Cornell, in South Korea (where the MNC did not have the patent) to make the technology available to India, with Sathguru securing the MNC’s consent. The technology was transferred to Bangladesh by fulfilling the material transfer agreement guidelines and licensing obligations.

Evaluation of the transgenic seeds was done by the Directorate of Rice Research, Hyderabad, and Delhi’s ICGEB, a non-profit research organization set up by Unido, a UN agency. The testing was undertaken by the Central Soil Salinity Research Institute, Karnal.

The Intel Inside model has been emulated by the Indo-Swiss Collaboration in Biotechnology to craft transgenic chickpea which is resistant to the pod borer and cowpea aphids. An agreement has been reached between Assam Agricultural University, Kolkata’s Bose Institute and Swiss research organizations for the development of technologies, adherence to milestones, acquisition of relevant new skills and the regulation of intellectual property rights.

Based on the highest bid, the technology was transferred to Mahyco on a non-exclusive basis for development of pest resistant hybrids and conduct of biosafety trials.

Eight traits in 17 crops are being evaluated for safety by 32 institutions in the country. Field trials are allowed in only four states. The centre is coy about allowing commercial cultivation of GM crops. Intel Inside seems unable to overcome the opposition outside.

Vivian Fernandes is consulting editor of Smart Indian Agriculture, a web site supported by the crop biotechnology industry.