Earlier this month, Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, admitted that its genetically engineered “Bt” (bacillus thuringiensis) cotton seed wasn’t all that farmers in India had hoped. Reports coming in from four districts of India’s Gujarat state indicated that the company’s seeds had not been able to prevent a pest called the pink bollworm from attacking cotton crops. Activists hoping to protect the country’s biodiversity and its farmers from excessive dependence on multinational seed companies hailed the news as a victory in the latest round of an increasingly shrill public debate on the role of GM crops. About 90% of India’s cotton is based on Bt cotton seed; Monsanto and its licensees are the dominant suppliers of those seeds.

The anti-GM camp had reason to cheer a few weeks earlier as well, when Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh abruptly put a moratorium on an insect-resistant variety of aubergine seed, known as Bt brinjal, on the eve of its much-hyped launch. But the battle is far from over. Shortly after the moratorium was declared, the government also made overtures to GM advocates by insisting that it did not want to shut the doors on the industry. Noting biotechnology’s importance for “higher agricultural productivity and ensuring food security,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called for additional studies on the environmental and health effects of GM crops and promised to set up a national biotechnology authority to stimulate investment in seed development.

Fact vs. Fiction

As the Bt brinjal episode highlights, using GM seeds — often referred to as “transgenics” — to increase food production and lower production costs is fraught with controversy. “In the debate over biotech crops, differentiating fact from fiction is not easy,” according to a paper on the economic impact of transgeniccrops published last year by the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C. “The debate has been confused by the influence of rigid, absolutist views (both supportive of and opposed to biotech crops) about the role of science in society, combined with a general ignorance of science.”

The global battle lines in the controversy over GM seeds were drawn more than a decade ago in Europe, where strong anti-GM activist groups, including the likes of Greenpeace, have successfully lobbied against GM seeds, claiming that they are unsafe for human consumption and weaken or destroy other seeds and crops. But GM seeds — for cotton, maize, soybean and rice, among others — have steadily found their way into the agriculture of a number of countries, including the U.S., Canada, China, South Africa, Brazil and Argentina. On March 2, after a 12-year wait, the European Union approved the cultivation of a GM potato and the import of three types of maize.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a nonprofit that monitors the use of GM crops, there are more than 14 million farmers in 25 countries producing GM crops — an 80-fold increase since 1996, when GM seeds were first commercialized. In 2009, there were 134 million hectares of “biotech” crops worldwide, representing an 8% increase year on year.

“The clear message is that small farmers are getting substantial benefits” from transgenic crops, says Carl E. Pray, professor with the agricultural, food and resource economics department at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who is currently studying the impact on small farmers of GM crops in South Africa, China and India. “The gain in terms of higher yields or reduced pesticide use is usually a lot more than the increase in the cost of the seeds.”

As for India, its US$1.5 billion seed industry is the fifth largest in the world, with the private sector accounting for three quarters of it, of which Missouri-based Monsanto controls more than 60%. Commercial seeds — including “hybrids” that combine different crop varieties to achieve higher yields and pest resistance — account for 15% of the country’s total supply, with farm-saved seeds making up the rest.

Over recent years, the seed industry has been encouraged by Bt cotton, which was first commercialized in India in 2002 and continues to be the only type of Bt crop allowed to grow in the country. Bt, which introduces a gene into seeds to disrupt the bollworm insect that plagues cotton crops, has lifted India’s cotton production from 190 million bales in 2003 to 310 million bales currently, according to Satish Kagliwal, managing director of Nath Biogene, a seed-manufacturing company in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad city, which sells a Bt cotton seed called Fusion and so-called “hybrid” seeds for a variety of other crops. “The same thing can be repeated in other [non-cotton] crops,” he says. In the case of aubergine, Bt brinjal would attack the fruit and shoot borer insects that wreak havoc on those crops.

‘A Rude Shock’

With February’s abortive launch of Bt brinjal, however, “we have fallen behind by at least 10 years and this will have a telling effect on the country’s food security,” says Kagliwal. “If we are not focused on developing varieties of seeds that can resist pests, insects, heat and drought, we won’t have enough food to feed the teeming millions.” The government’s decision “has given seed companies investing in research a rude shock,” he says, adding that “investment efforts will be stopped and new technology will be delayed.” Bt brinjal itself took nine years of R&D, according to its developer, Mumbai-based Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco).

Meanwhile, in the anti-GM camp, there’s concern that Bt cotton and the like are doing more harm than good. “On paper, genetic engineering is made to look very good, but on the ground it’s a tragedy,” says Vandana Shiva, a physicist turned environmental activist in Dehradun in Uttarakhand state, who runs Navdanya, a nonprofit that donates more than 3,000 varieties of salt-tolerant rice seeds to farmers. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t have farmer suicides concentrated in the Bt cotton belt.” More than 200,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide over the past decade, according to government statistics, which Shiva blames in part on farmer indebtedness aggravated by transgenic cotton seeds.

“The indebtedness is created by nonrenewable [transgenic] seeds that have to be bought every year,” rather than the farm-saved ones, which can be re-used, she says. After Bt seeds arrived in the country in 2002, the price of cotton seeds jumped from Rs. 7 a bag (which covers one acre) to Rs. 1,700 a bag, she says. (The price today is around Rs. 750.) For its part, Monsanto disagrees with the notion that Bt cotton seeds have had anything to do with the spate of farmer suicides, noting on its website that the trend began well before its cotton seeds were introduced to the market.

However, Shiva adds that farmers are also being misled about the seed products they’re being sold. Because seed companies in India are allowed to market their products under a self-regulatory system of labeling, the yield and other properties can be overstated. “There is no independent check,” says Shiva. In an article in the Huffington Post in April 2009, she alleged, “Monsanto sells its GMO seeds on fraudulent claims of yields of 1,500 kilograms a year [per acre] when farmers harvest 300 kg/year to 400 kg/year on an average.”

As for the seed companies’ claims that Bt brinjal will reduce the need for insecticides by as much as 90%, she counters that Bt cotton seeds have, in fact, increased that need because they have become more resistant to pests. “Bt cotton, even though promoted as resistant to the bollworm, has created new pests, and to control these new pests, farmers are using 13 times more pesticides then they were using prior to introduction of Bt cotton,” she wrote in the Huffington Post article.

Shiva contends that government policies and private-sector seed manufacturers erode the banks of native seeds, yet fail to deliver improved seeds. “Genetic engineering cannot engineer tolerance to drought, floods or [salinity].”  She accuses multinational seed companies of “bio-piracy, where you take stuff from the Third World, claim it to be an invention of a U.S. company, and then sell it back for a profit, and forbid the original contributors from having free access.” Further, she says MNCs control the Indian seed market, both directly and by licensing seed varieties to numerous domestic Indian companies. Monsanto, for example, has a 26% equity stake in Mahyco, the first Indian company to commercially grow and market Bt cotton in 2002, and has licensing deals with 27 seed companies for Bt cotton in the country.

Kagliwal acknowledges that the fear of MNCs taking over the Indian seed industry is real, and that he too would rather not have them as competitors. In fact, Nath Biogene did not jump at licensing Monsanto’s Bt cotton technology and shopped around before settling on a Chinese source, he says. Yet he sees merit in using technologies that MNCs have developed over many years. “Either you develop it yourself or pay the price for it,” he says. Farmers earned Rs. 6,000 (US$150) more per acre by paying Rs. 200 (US$4) for Bt cotton seeds. “Isn’t the cost-benefit ratio simple to see here?” he asks.

The Rift Grows

Will a seed policy that’s now in the works address anti-GM concerns? Some of the proposed changes include making the registration of seed varieties compulsory and increasing the penalties for impingements. Yet Shiva fears these proposals target farmers’ indigenous seed varieties that have evolved as resistant to drought, floods and frost. Compulsory registration will make it illegal to plant unlicensed varieties and increase farmers’ dependency on “corporate” seeds, she adds.

Though the government has not set a timetable for the new policy’s rollout, its objective is clear, says R. K. Sinha, executive director of the National Seed Association of India, who is among the range of stakeholders the government has asked to provide input for the new policy: “We should be in a position to supply the best planting material. The source is immaterial — public, private, domestic or from abroad.”

He sees “immense” opportunities for GM seeds in India, but calls for a “science-based approach” in deciding whether to permit which ones should be allowed. “Our problems are declining availability of arable land, declining resources, increasing population, low productivity and heavy losses due to drought, pests and salinity,” he says. “We will support any technology that helps us combat those, and GM is an important element of it.”

As for what India can learn from the experiences of other countries, Gyanendra Shukla, a director at Monsanto (India) in Mumbai, says China sets a good example: “It had a clear-cut policy statement that it is going to use GM crops to the fullest extent,” he says. “If China can produce 450 million tons of grain from 100 million hectares, why can’t India produce even 300 million metric tons from 135 million hectares, which is the second largest arable land in the world?” Shukla asks. India currently produces about 230 million tons of food grains annually.

Pray of Rutgers recommends a regulatory system that achieves two objectives. One is to keep errant elements out: “It certainly is possible to think about government plant breeders or biotech or private-sector scientists doing things that could affect the nutritional profile of the plant or potential allergens,” he says. Second, he cites the need for strong competition policies, because “companies will use their scientific advantage to increase their share of their market.”

But while the central ministry of environment and forests controls the release of specific strains of GM seeds, agriculture is very much a state-level issue, and it is the individual states that can sway the GM debate in India. At least 13 states, including Karnataka and Orissa, opposed Bt brinjal’s commercial launch, while a few other states, including Maharashtra and Gujarat, wanted more time to examine the issue. Maharashtra, Punjab, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, which did not openly oppose Bt brinjal, account for about 40% of the country’s brinjal production, so have arguably the most to gain or lose from the outcome.

But now that cotton is back in the spotlight, the debate could have even more twists and turns than it currently does. Shiva sees the latest news about Bt cotton’s inability to combat the bollworm as a ploy by Monsanto to win support for its next generation of Bt cotton “It’s like the pesticide treadmill … when you have resistance to [one type of GM seed] you use a more lethal pesticide,” she says. Monsanto notes that the type of resistance seen in Gujarat “is natural and expected” and says it is stepping up monitoring. It also is calling for an “intensified farmer education campaign,” noting that farmers may be using the Bt cotton seed improperly.

Until more trials and studies are complete, it seems that the only thing now for India’s anti- and pro-GM lobbyists to do is to simply agree to disagree.