Let’s unMonsanto the debate.

On August 28, I had the opportunity to attend a discussion on the BRAI Bill, currently in Lok Sabha. It was held at The Hindu, and attended by some of my colleagues and some representatives from the Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises (ABLE). The point of the discussion according to ABLE, which had arranged it, was to create awareness of the bill and dispel some popular misconceptions.

The bill, if passed, will set up a Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI), whose purpose will be to oversee and administer all biotechnology-related activities in India. These powers are wide-ranging, going from fixing prices for genetically engineered seeds to having a hold on export and import of transgenic foodstuff to dictating safety standards for the research, cultivation, production and consumption of genetically modified (GM) crops.

As things stand, the bill is being opposed on many fronts. A Technical Experts Committee constituted by the Supreme Court last year recommended a 10-year moratorium on all field trials of Bt transgenic foodstuff. This was accompanied by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests suspending all field trials on GM crops, licenses for which were granted by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC). Both were centered around India supposedly lacking the infrastructure, skill and manpower to handle transgenic consumables.

Our discussion with ABLE snaked this way and that. It touched upon the GEAC, pesticides use, the possibility of ‘superbugs’, data availability, the Right to Information, and India’s agricultural needs and water-politics. At times, the participants seemed adversarial; at others, convivial. Unfortunately, there was one issue that constantly underpinned the conversation, this one very little to do with what India was or wasn’t capable of: Monsanto, Inc.

Guilt by association

One among the ABLE delegation, Dr. J.S. Rehman, an entemologist and a former member of the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (constituted by the Department of Biotechnology), seemed very concerned about this. Monsanto’s unenviable environmental legacy worldwide had riled up activists to protest its coming with such vehemence that, he lamented, Indian biotech. was also being suppressed in the process.

Here are two questions that were addressed to Dr. Rehman during the discussion:

Do you think the entire atmosphere over the biotechnology bill and its understanding or misunderstanding – however you look at it – is largely because of one big MNC called Monsanto?

JSR: “Our using Monsanto as a synonym with GM technology is one of the worst things we’re doing – not only for farmers but also for our people who are trying to develop genes, and who are trying to compete with Monsanto. Every time, everywhere we go, we see people asking very general questions, and we’re wasting out time in educating those people rather than putting our efforts into the development of technology and other things.”

How much have Monsanto’s businesses hijacked the debate over biotech.?

JSR: “We’re in a very bad situation, I think: Monsanto is only the gene developer. It’s not a seed developer. It has the gene which it has given to Mahyco. In Andhra Pradesh, earlier, once Bt cotton was given, for example, and Rs. 1,700 was fixed as cost-per-packet. This was because artificial competition was created in the market by introducing the Bt gene, after which all competitors had to adopt it or face losses. Then, Monsanto demanded a royalty of Rs. 1,200 per packet. So, if I have been selling a packet at Rs. 400, then my new minimum cost is Rs. 1,600. So, the competition was exploited by Monsanto.

These prices are very high for farmers, and allows people to comment that the Bt technology has spiked the cost of packeted seeds. Then, the State intervened, and after a case was filed, Monsanto was forced temporarily to reduce royalty from Rs. 1,200 to Rs. 100. This brought down the price of Bt packets to around Rs. 750-950 per packet. So, both seed companies and the farmers are benefited by the Bt technology. Farmer will also get the benefit of reducing it from Rs. 1,600 to Rs. 750. The only person losing here is Monsanto.

Then, some time after this, the seed-rate was increased. New norms recommended that instead of one packet per acre, farmers use two packets per acre. However, another way to look at this is to see that in a net area, one can go for more productivity.”

So, Indians are succumbing to the fallacy of guilt-by-association – just like with our nuclear program: “Just because the Department of Atomic Energy is doing a bad job of administering India’s nuclear program, the idea of nuclear power is bad.” As Dr. Rehman said, Monsanto may have superior technology. However, it is exploiting the latency of its Indian competitors, and the preferential access it received in the 90s from the Indian government to promote free trade, to come out on top. And when activists assume that all of GM is bad because Monsanto – its leading researcher – is bad, they are suffocating the Indian competition and empowering Monsanto.

Daylight robbery

One other example specific to Monsanto that emerged during the discussion was brought up by Dr. T.M. Manjunath, of ABLE. Dr. Manjunath was a former director at the Monsanto Research Centre, Bangalore.

He felt the need to correct Dr. Rehman on one count: that of the habit of comparing the prices of traditional cotton seeds with Bt cotton seeds. He said, “We shouldn’t compare the two without taking into account the associated benefits from each. For example, if farmers bought traditional seeds at Rs. 400 a packet, then they would also have to spend an additional Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 5,000 to insecticides. So, these [numbers] should be added to that cost. On the other hand, if you buy a packet of Bt cotton seeds at, say, Rs. 1,700, that is all farmers will have to expend there. You wouldn’t have to spray insecticides. Thereby, the farmers are immensely benefited.”

The problem here is that Monsanto is attempting to justify its exorbitant profit margins by citing a higher cost-benefit ratio, forgetting that it does not have a license to rip farmers off. Instead, if the technology has improved enough to keep the cost-benefit ratio high, then the farmer must be the full and final beneficiary. As one of the participants put it: “Monsanto can’t say ‘I’m still giving him a 4,000-rupee window!'”

At the same time, it’d be beneficial for Indian decision-makers to remember that Bt cotton did see some kind of success in India, seeing adoption by over 70 lakh farmers, and lasting well beyond its initially perceived lifetime – 6 to 7 years – before worms developed resistance to it. “One of our recommendations to minimise resistance-development was asking for 20 per cent refugee area. However, we also knew that asking farmers to sacrifice 20 per cent of their land in the name of the yield wasn’t always going to work. But to our surprise, the resistance developed [by pests and worms] has been minimal,” said Dr. Rehman.

There were Bt cotton crop failures, too, but the moral is that Monsanto sucks, yes, but the technology is promising and could be useful for India. For instance, even though Monsanto’s Bt has defied resistance for more than a decade, scientists think the threat is always imminent and that we need to be prepared. If the pall of Monsanto could be cleared (and its monstrous royalties on seeds sales avoided), perhaps an indigenous developer of transgenic seeds (about 20 varieties of which are thought to be in the pipeline) has the answer.

Failure of the stakeholders

The appropriate place from which to address this “hijacking” would be to look at how much of and how well the public sector has been activated – not to compete with Monsanto, which is already spending $1.3 billion a year on GM tech., but to make India become a self-sustaining developer of indigenous biotech. capabilities that can address its immediate needs (such as water sufficiency, which has been worsened by Bt cotton varieties).

In this regard, there has been a failure among stakeholders to explain to the people that it’s not about MNCs v. India, that the BRAI Bill is not only for Monsanto but also for Indian players. The details of how it will take from and give back to them are out of focus.

For example:

  1. Proposed: A single-window clearance system.

    Actually: Seen from the pro-GM (“ergo pro-Monsanto”) side, it could be argued that the government wants to facilitate Indian applications. Seen from the anti-Monsanto (“ergo anti-GM”) side, it looks as if the government wants to fast-track dubious applications. Which one is it?

  2. Proposed: BRAI “will not disclose confidential information made available in an application to the Authority.”

    Actually: The representatives from ABLE clarified that while some information would be hidden from the public domain, research on and results from field trials would be on display on a website for all to see, and the rest could be obtained using the RTI.

  3. Proposed: BRAI will be a centrally implemented body; State governments will have no say in its functioning and decision-making.

    Actually: A proposal for a State Biotechnology Regulatory Advisory Committee has been included in the BRAI Bill. The committee is to act as an intermediary agency between the State government and BRAI. It is not as if States have no say; however, to what extent will such a body empower the State?

  4. Proposed: Committees constituted by the BRAI Bill will approve and ratify applications from companies for the production and transportation of transgenic foodstuff.

    Actually: While committees will approve applications, a third-party (non-governmental) agency will be required to validate the results first. At the same time, the bill also okays all DSIR-approved labs for validation, which means a company with its own DSIR-approved lab can validate its own results (DSIR is the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research).

As it is, the bill is currently being examined by a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture, which would do well to ask for increased clarity on these issues. Dr. Rehman noted that even though the last deadline for public feedback, August 25, had passed, the Committee was considering extending the period for a second time (having earlier pushed it by 45 days from June 10). If and when a new date is announced, let’s unMonsanto.

I originally wrote this post for The Copernican, the science blog over The Hindu, on September 2, 2013.