After GM mustard, GEAC set to recommend ‘environmental release’ of Bayer’s herbicide-tolerant cotton

After Delhi University’s transgenic hybrid mustard, India’s biotechnology regulator is set to recommend the “environmental release” of a genetically modified (GM) cotton of German multinational company Bayer AG that allows farmers to spray the herbicide glyphosate.

The transgenic cotton — Bollgard II Roundup Ready Flex (BG-II RRF) — contains three alien genes, the first two (‘cry1Ac’ and ‘cry2Ab’) being isolated from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt, and coding for proteins toxic to the American bollworm, spotted bollworm and tobacco caterpillar insect pests. The third gene, ‘cp4-epsps’, is sourced from another soil bacterium, Agrobacterium tumafaciens. Its incorporation into cotton makes the crop “tolerant” to glyphosate. This herbicide cannot be applied on normal cotton, as the chemical does not distinguish between the crops and weeds.

The regulatory body, Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), in a meeting on July 27, had constituted an expert sub-committee under Department of Biotechnology (DBT) scientist Sanjay Kumar Mishra to conduct a detailed review of the application by Mahyo Pvt. Ltd, Mumbai, the licensee for the BG-II RRF technology in India.

The Indian Express has learnt that the panel has given its approval for said genetically modified (GM) crop event. “The review was completed last week and the sub-committee’s report will be taken up at the next meeting of the GEAC,” said an ICAR official, who requested anonymity. GEAC is a body under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change that appraises GM products for their testing and commercialisation (environmental release).

The expert sub-committee’s members also included the director of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) A K Singh, Assistant Director General (Seeds) of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) D K Yadava, former head of IARI’s Division of Microbiology K Annapurna, Head of the All-India Coordinated Research Project on Cotton A H Prakash, DBT scientist Nitin K Jain and Environment Ministry scientist Abhilasha Singh Mathuriya.

Incidentally, the same panel had submitted a report on October 8, based on which the GEAC had recommended the environmental release of the GM hybrid mustard DMH-11 along with its parental lines for seed production, commercial cultivation and breeding of new hybrids. The GEAC meeting took place on October 18, 10 days after the expert sub-committee’s report was submitted.

BG-II RRF cotton had already undergone biosafety research and field trials by 2012-13. The dossier containing the results of these trials were submitted by its original developer, Monsanto, to the GEAC in March 2013. Amid the regulatory uncertainty and no decision being taken, the American company withdrew its application seeking environmental release of the herbicide-tolerant GM cotton product.

In 2018, Monsanto was acquired by Bayer, following which the latter, through Mahyco, resubmitted its application early this year.

“The atmosphere has changed considerably in the last 7-8 months. There is more appreciation of the need to create an atmosphere to promote agricultural research and allow new products to boost crop yields,” said the official quoted above.

The real push in this direction, according to him, has come from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech where he made a strong pitch for “anusandhan” (research). Jai Anusandhan was added to the slogan given by previous prime ministers that extolled the “jawan” (soldier), “kisan” (farmer) and “vigyan” (science).

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