Govt policies have shrunk Mahyco’s ag-biotech research spending by 70%: Usha Barwale Zehr

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Published: March 6, 2019 1:20:16 AM

Our goal is to develop products that farmers can plant. We have doubled up on research in molecular markers (that help select plants with desirable traits). We have also made significant investments in microbial seed treatments.

The notification was withdrawn, but every year we have the same discussion.’

The Maharastra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco) is the pioneer of organised private seed production in India. An unlisted company, it was founded by Badrinarayan Ramulal Barwale at Jalna in Maharashtra in 1964. From its breeding efforts came hybrids in bajra (1981), jowar (1982) and cotton (1985). In 1995, it began research in transgenic crops and, in 2002, obtained approval for cultivation of India’s first and only genetically-modified (GM) crop, Bt cotton, with technology from the American MNC Monsanto. In 2006, it got approval for an improved version of the insect-resistant cotton. Since then, India has not approved any GM crop for cultivation. In an interview with Vivian Fernandes, who blogs at www.smartindianagriculture.in, Mahyco’s chief technology officer Usha Barwale Zehr, herself a geneticist and PhD in agronomy, explains why government policies have had a chilling effect on ag-biotech research. Excerpts:

While participating in a discussion on ‘Regulation of GMOs and genome-edited products’, at the XIV Agricultural Science Congress 2019 in Delhi recently, you said Mahyco’s research on GM crops has suffered by 70%. Is that in terms of investment or headcount?

In terms of rupees; I was asked by my board for how long are you going to keep putting money in a hole where there is no end in sight? Over the last three years, we have drastically reduced staff, investment and activities.

(Its annual expenditure on GM crop research has declined from `80 crore to `30 crore, the company said. VF)

How much staff have you reduced?

We reduced 50-plus staff who were working on GM crop-related matters. We have cut our funding by 70%. Whatever we had at BRL (Biosafety Research Level)-I or BRL-II, stages we have put on the shelf.

(Mahyco was doing research in transgenic rice for insect resistance; herbicide and salinity tolerance; and nitrogen- and water-use efficiency. Bt okra was in advanced trials for resistance to the fruit borer.)

There is extensive illegal cultivation of BG-II RRF cotton, given there is no approved version. In August 2016, Mahyco withdrew its application from GEAC for approval of BG-II RRF, saying the government pressing for sharing of technology with seed companies “raised serious concerns about the protection of IPR.” Last April, a division bench of the Delhi High Court overturned a ruling of the court’s single judge that GM traits, being artificial gene constructs, were patentable. In January, the Supreme Court said the division bench was wrong and referred the matter back to the single judge. Does this not give Mahyco the confidence to reapply for approval of BG-II RRF?

On the legal front, I am not the best person. My understanding is that the Supreme Court set aside the judgment of the two-judge bench and sent it back to the single-judge bench for sorting it out. That is in process.

But hasn’t the single judge upheld the patentability of GM traits? While doing that he said the government had the right to fix prices and trait fees…
To my understanding, the single judge said that Section 3(j) of the Patents Act (that plants and seeds cannot be patented) does not apply to Monsanto’s patent for man-made gene. Also, the PPV&FRA (Protection of Plant Varieties & Farmers’ Rights Act) does not extinguish or impact patent rights. But he only gave an interim order. The Supreme

Court order was a good start and we now await the completion of the matter before taking a final call.
(Monsanto, which has been taken over by Bayer, holds the patents for herbicide tolerance and insect resistance genes in BG-II RRF. The PPV&FRA is meant to recognise the rights of farmers or farming communities to varieties with unique traits they have conserved, and reward them.)
At Science Congress, you said Mahyco was deterred by the restrictions on a GM trait owner’s right to charge fees for proprietary traits. But the government withdrew, within a few days, its May 2016 notification denying pricing and licensing freedom to GM trait owners…

The notification was withdrawn, but every year we have the same discussion. Unless we have assurance that if you bring innovative products to the market, there will be some mechanism by which the developer is protected … otherwise, not only do I have to take all the risk, but I am not even allowed to capture value.
(In 2016, the government slashed trait fee payable by seed companies on BG-II cottonseed from `163 per pack of 450gm to `49. Subsequently, it reduced it to `39.)

What is Mahyco’s research focus now?

Our goal is to develop products that farmers can plant. We have doubled up on research in molecular markers (that help select plants with desirable traits). We have also made significant investments in microbial seed treatments, which enhance farmers’ income by increasing productivity as well as soil health. The sad part is we have a lot of products that are ready to go. Bt brinjal is a case in point, where nothing is needed; it just needs a green light. When you don’t have that, it is really demoralising.
(Bt brinjal got regulator’s approval for commercial cultivation in 2010, but environment minister Jairam Ramesh vetoed the approval. Bangladesh approved it on the basis of Indian biosafety data in 2013. From 20 in 2014, a little over 27,000 Bangladeshi farmers are growing it.)
The CEO of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is in favour of labelling of GM food products. Would you go along?
My first preference would be not to label, for two reasons. One, after the product undergoes full biosafety clearance, what is the need for labelling? If the government mandates that we label, I don’t have an issue, but the challenge is the practicality of it. In the case of cotton, we could possibly label.

Even Bt cottonseed oil…

It’s a no-brainer; 95% of the cotton area is GM so only the non-GM cotton oil will have to be segregated.

Do you mean non-GM cottonseed oil should be labelled as such?

It wouldn’t be a bad idea considering how much pesticide might have been on it. In Bangladesh, farmers name Bt brinjal varieties, but as the acreage increases, we are not sure how this will continue.

(The Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) has four approved Bt brinjal varieties: Uttara, Nayantara, Kazla and ISD006. Farmers are required to label their baskets, say, ‘BARI Bt Begun 1-Uttara—Fruit and Shoot Borer Resistant Bt Brinjal’. Mahyco has supplied the technology but does not get paid for it.)

Genome editing is more acceptable technology than genetic engineering because genes from other species are not introduced; only undesirable ones are silenced or excised.

Should gene-edited crops be subject to the same rigorous testing for biosafety as GM crops?

I don’t think same rules should apply because you can produce gene-edited products by conventional processes. If you can’t distinguish between gene-edited products and those that have been mutated through conventional processes (radiation or chemicals), then some might disclose and some might not, and those that disclose will be at a disadvantage. Regulation should be based on the appropriateness of the technology.

What could trigger a government rethink on GM crops?

The fall armyworm could be a trigger. About 15 million hectares of maize in India is under threat.

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