Probe nails scientists in GM cotton scandal

Nagpur, Dec. 16: An expert committee probing a scandal relating to India's first public sector-developed genetically modified (GM) cotton has indicted the scientists involved for foul play.

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research, which oversaw the project, admitted last year that the Bikaneri Narma-Bt (BN-Bt) cotton contained not an "indigenously" created gene sequence as claimed but a gene patented by US firm Monsanto.

The committee has also indicted the ICAR for scientific, institutional and ethical failure. (See chart)

Indirectly, the probe report raises doubts on the efficacy of India's bio-safety regulatory mechanism, considering the ease with which it was fooled about the GM cotton's genetic composition, although the bio-safety clearance itself is not under question.

The five-member probe panel was set up by the ICAR itself and was headed by Sudhir Sopory, JNU vice-chancellor and plant biologist. It handed in its 129-page report in August but the ICAR made it public only yesterday,

On February 6 this year, The Telegraph had reported how BN-Bt was released commercially in mid-2009 and planted extensively. The seeds were not only far cheaper than other available GM cotton seeds but, unlike the rest, didn't need to be bought every year ' they could be reused from the previous year's plants.

But in December 2009, the ICAR suddenly withdrew the seeds. In December 2011, it acknowledged that the gene sequence in the BN-Bt had not been developed in-house. The gene used was Mon-531, available in 2,000-odd cotton seed varieties sold in the Indian market (because Monsanto's 1985 patent on it has expired).

With private sector Bt cotton seeds flooding the market, BN-Bt was developed as a collaborative public sector effort by the National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology (NRCPB), New Delhi; University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad; and the Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur.

The results were published by the principal scientists in Current Science in 2007. According to this paper, the Dharwad university developed BN-Bt using an in-house gene sequence, BNLA106, developed from the cry1Ac gene-construct provided by the Delhi institute.

The Nagpur institute carried out the bio-safety and field trials and later sold the seeds to farmers after the regulator, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), approved their commercialisation.

That the seeds contained Mon-531 and not BNLA106 came to light after two scientists from the Dharwad institution filed an RTI query.

The Sopory panel has confirmed that the "contamination" ' which appears to be a euphemism for foul play ' by Mon-531 happened before the commercialisation but went undetected by the GEAC.

It said the only Bt gene found in the BN-Bt samples from the fields was Mon-531, but a "purified" sample provided by the Dharwad institute ' when the scandal first broke ' had a gene sequence other than Mon-531. The panel said it could not verify if this was BNLA106 and suggested third-party verification.

It cited another anomaly. The cry1Ac gene was developed by Illimar Altosaar of the University of Ottawa and obtained by R.P. Sharma, former director of the Delhi institute, by signing a material transfer agreement (MTA) that allows only educational use. In 2006, Sharma tried to negotiate a freedom-to-operate agreement ' which would have allowed other uses ' with Altosaar but failed for reasons that remain unclear.

But in 2006, the ICAR decided that Sharma had signed the MTA in his "personal capacity", that a freedom-to-operate agreement was not necessary, and that the gene construct would be referred to as an "NRCPB construct".

The committee said: "It was a violation of the MTA and, to say the least, unethical."