A Comprehensive History of GM crops in India | Issues with Bt Cotton, Brinjal, Mustard

India has the world’s 4th largest GM crop acreage. The world order is – USA, Brazil, Argentina, India. If that’s not interesting enough, then let me add another fact on this – this rank is largely on the strength of Bt cotton, the only genetically modified crop allowed in the country. 

At present, 96% of India’s cotton cultivation area is under Bt cotton crops.

And that’s not just it. After the introduction of Bt cotton in 2002, India’s cotton imports fell, exports grew and as of 2015-16 India is expected to have overtaken China as the biggest cotton producer it the world.

2 major events raked in controversies in the GM food arena in 2016


– Government price interventions and litigation around the royalty or trait fee paid to Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India), or MMB, a joint venture set up by Monsanto, by local seed companies using its technology

– A hold on Bt Mustard’s (food crop) field trials despite government’s pushing on a vocal agenda on GM adoption in agriculture. Remember NITI Aayog released this statement in 2016 – “As a part of its strategy to bring a Second Green Revolution, India must return to permitting proven and well tested GM technologies with adequate safeguards.”

To understand these issues in a comprehensive manner, we will have to understand the legal frameworks and debates around these crops in detail.

Bt cotton (cash crop) and its introduction in India

Bt cotton was the first genetically modified crop to be approved for cultivation in India in 2002, with the introduction of Monsanto’s GM cotton seeds. (Monosanto is the same company which threatened to walk out of India early in 2016 when government stepped in to check its monopoly and cut its royalty by ~70%) 

Note: To understand the basics of GMO, the 2016 GM mustard controversy and the governmental setup around it – read this exclusive story on the GMO Debate (with infograph)

Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium that produces toxins harmful to a variety of insects, including bollworms that attack cotton. Bt cotton was created by introducing genes from the bacterium into the cotton seed, creating a crop resistant to this pest. We read the 96% dominance on cotton production and a significant reduction in insecticide use over time.

Legal Framework on GM Crops in India

In our country, the GM crops are regulated under the following:

#1. Environment Protection Act and GEAC (apex committee) 

All transgenic crops in India require environmental clearance under 1989 “Rules for Manufacture, Use, Import, Export and storage of hazardous microorganisms/Genetically Engineered Organisms or Cells” notified under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.

A Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) was established in 1989, as apex body for this matter.

In 1989, some Biosafety regulatory frameworks were issued by the MOEF which covered areas of research as well as large scale applications of GMOs and hazardous microorganisms which may not be genetically modified. <this is an important point>

Presently there are 6 committees under the rules of 1989. The mandate of the six Committees notified under Rules 1989 is as follows:

A. Genetic Engineering “Appraisal” Committee (GEAC) – [Apex Body] For approval of activities involving large scale use of hazardous microorganisms and recom­binants in research and industrial production from the environ­mental angle.

Also responsible for ap­proval of proposals relating to release of genetically engineered organisms and products into the environment including experimen­tal field trials.

B. State Biotechnology Coordination Committee (SBCC’s) –  State level monitoring

C. District Level Committees (DLCs) – District level monitoring

D. Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RDAC) – The functions are of an advisory nature and involve review of developments in biotechnology at national and international levels

E. Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) – Monitor safety related aspects

F. Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBSC) – Oversee in GMO research + Help RCGM

#2. National Biological Diversity Act 2002

National Biological Diversity Act 2002 has provisions to deal with the possible risks associated with the application of modern biotechnology. The apex body constituted under this act is National Biodiversity Authority (NBA).

The NBA is Autonomous body and that performs facilitative, regulatory and advisory function for Government of India on issue of Conservation, sustainable use of biological resource and fair equitable sharing of benefits of use.

On state level this act makes provisions for state level biodiversity board.

But the complexities of this legal framework went for a toss in 1998 when Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Ltd. (Mahyco) started field trials of Bt Cotton in nine states and no one exactly knew which authority allowed it to do so.

Anyway, back in 2002 – with growing yield of cotton in field trials and little evidence to prove any far reaching disadvantages on the environmental scale, Bt cotton’s commercialisation was approved. Four to five years later, activists filed a PIL against GM crops in the Supreme Court and the whole controversy around side effects of Bt cotton started.

The side effects of Bt Cotton

–  The seeds are more expensive than local, non-genetically modified varieties

–  The seeds cannot be reused and farmers need to buy new stock for every growing season

–  The diffusion of illegal Bt hybrids that hadn’t been cleared for biosafety standards, leading to fears of environmental toxicity. There were more than 1000 varieties of cotton hybrids and uninformed and vague choices on the part of the farmers led to stagnant production these Bt hybrids were unsuitable for rain-fed cotton lands.

–  There were issues around the actual efficacy of the Bollgard seeds with reports of bollworm infestations even in Bt cotton crops. In reality, this could just be a case of misplaced analysis. The Bt cotton is resistant only towards one type of cotton pest but leaves the plant open to other kinds.

Not all is wrong with Bt Cotton. There is a major issue of Late Maturing Hybrids

In India, Cotton is an important rainfed crop. Most of the Bt hybrids are of 180-to 200-day duration and are not suitable for rain-fed conditions. Since the Hybrid seeds are costly, they are sown late, only when the farmers ensured that there is adequate soil moisture. The boll formation in the late sown maturing hybrids suffers from severe moisture stress because it takes place much later after the rains recede. This ultimately results in low yields.

Instead, the advantage with straight varieties would have been that farmers can reuse farm-saved seeds and can take the liberty of early dry sowing, even before the onset of the monsoon, without having to worry about the risks of poor germination and re-sowing. Then, many of these hybrids are susceptible to sap-sucking insects, leaf-curl virus and leaf reddening, adding to input costs.


The 2016 pricing controversy with Monsanto & GOI

An antitrust investigation was launched by the Competition Commission of India (CCI) into the seed pricing and around the royalty or trait fee paid to Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India), or MMB, a joint venture set up by Monsanto, by local seed companies using its technology.

Hope you know about CCI. If you do not, read up on it. It was in news very recently on this issue – CCI fines cement firms for cartelisation

The National Seed Association of India, a trade group representing seed companies sided with the government on the fee controls. They say that the lower technology fees are justified because the seeds aren’t as effective as when they were first introduced in 2002.

The company argues that technology fees represent 2% of Indian farmers’ overall cost of growing a crop, and that such fees for biotech cotton in India are “already the lowest in the world but the GOI hasn’t budged on it.

The curious case of Bt Brinjal & Bt Mustard

In 2010, Environment Ministry imposed a moratorium on the release of the transgenic brinjal hybrid. The stakes were high this time. Brinjal was a food crop and cotton (which got approved in 2002) was a cash crop.

It is interesting to note that India has been accused of double standards here with regards to this extra caution of cash crops vs. food crops. Cottonseed oil is a cooking oil extracted from the seeds of cotton plants of various species.

As far as India is concerned, I think it maintains double standards. It grows Bt cotton (90 per cent of the cotton grown in India is genetically modified), consumes edible oil from it, yet bans Bt brinjal. (source)

The reasons behind the moratorium were –

  • Lack of clear consensus among the scientific community;
  • Opposition from 10 State governments, especially from the major brinjal-producing States;
  • Questions about the safety and testing process;
  • Lack of an independent biotechnology regulatory authority (GEAC);
  • negative public sentiment and fears among consumers and the lack of a global precedent

GEAC’s name changed from approvals to appraisals

Companies/ people should not think they are coming for automatic approvals. They take it for granted…They must remember that we have a right to reject it as well.

In 2010, Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee (GEAC), which had recommended approval of Bt brinjal had a name change — with “Approvals” changed to “Appraisal”.

As for an independent regulatory authority – National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority was supposed to be set up. The Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India bill (2009) which is still on hold. If you want to read more on this bill, read up on this PRSindia link.

Note: It is worthwhile to recall that Greenpeace fought a 30-month RTI battle with the Department of Biotechnology and finally it took a Supreme Court order to get the government release the Bt brinjal bio-safety dossier submitted by Mahyco, the company that developed the crop in India with Monsanto.

This is an important point regarding activism by NGOs in India and this played an important role in imposing the moratorium on Bt Brinjal.

Criticisms on the ban:

The environment ministry’s temporary but open-ended moratorium had no basis in global scientific consensus. It drew from the playbook of the anti-GM non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that have created a parallel world of science of their own. (source)

The ban also ignored the tests. These were carried out according to best international standards by not only the seed company, but also by Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) laboratories over eight years.

One reason proffered for the ban was that a multinational companies would have a monopoly over the seeds—a generic complaint against all GM crops and one that is fallacious.


The case for rejection/ approval of Bt Mustard is still in fray and we would recommend that you read this article – Other environmental concerns apart, GM mustard could also send bees buzzing away to get a bird’s eye view.

To keep yourself updated – continue following this newstrail by CD – The great GMO Debate

Questions from Prelims Daily 

#1. Consider the following statements:

1. Micro-propagation is the practice of multiplying plants using modern techniques like tissue culture.

2. It is used to multiply novel plants like genetically modified ones.

Which of the above statement(s) is/are correct?

(a) 1 only

(b) 2 only

(c) Both 1 and 2

(d) Neither 1 nor 2

#2. The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee is constituted under the

(a) Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006
(b) Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999
(c) Environment (Protection) Act, 1986
(d) Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972

#3. The controversy regarding the use of Bt corn is that it

a. is potentially harmful to monarch butterflies
b. is a potential allergen to humans
c. both (a) and (b)
d. can contaminate groundwater

#4. The FAO accords the status of ‘Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS)’ to traditional agricultural systems. What is the overall goal of this initiative?

1. To provide modern technology, training in modern farming methods and financial support to local communities of identified GIAHS so as to greatly enhance their agricultural productivity

2. To identify and safeguard eco-friendly traditional farm practices and their associated landscapes, agricultural biodiversity and knowledge systems of the local communities

3. To provide Geographical Indication status to all the varieties of agricultural produce in such indentified GIAHS

Select the correct answer using the code given below.

(a) 1 and 3 only

(b) 2 only

(c) 2 and 3 only

(d) 1, 2 and 3

Questions from Target Mains

#1. Recently genetically modified crops and seeds have been in the news. Should GM crops be allowed? Discuss with special reference to environment and biodiversity.

#2. In your opinion can cultivation of GM (Genetically Modified) crops ensure food security for India? Critically examine the arguments presented in opposition and in favour of GM technology.

#3. Critically discuss all the issues related to GM Mustard in India from the perspective of developers of the crop, government and consumers.

#4. Can genetically modified (GM) food crops ensure food security in India? Why has government allowed GM cotton but not GM food crops for cultivation in India? Do you think it’s time for India to start cultivating GM food crops? Critically comment.

If you liked reading this article – do let me know in the comments! 

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