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Tuesday, 26 March, 2002, 14:53 GMT
India allows use of modified cotton
Indian cotton pickers
Indian farmers have welcomed the GM decision
India's environment regulator has approved the use of a genetically modified (GM) cotton for commercial production.

Clearance by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), a unit of the environment ministry, is mandatory for field trials and commercial production of GM crops.

"Farmers have sown cotton crop in a large area, but the yield will be very low - except the BT variety cotton, all others are doing bad. If there is anything that can save the farmer, it is only this variety

L. Upadhyay
Gujarat farmer
"(The) GEAC has approved the release of BT (bacillus thuringiensis) cotton into the environment of the country with certain conditions," said chairman A.M. Gokhale.

He added that these conditions were being "fine-tuned", but they would be announced on Wednesday.

Agriculture minister Agit Singh told the BBC's World Business Report he was very much in favour of GM cotton.

"Farmers are clamouring for GM seeds. You cannot stop it and put a blanket ban on it. I don't think any country can avoid it for long," he said.

But Greenpeace claims GM crops could cross pollinate and contaminate non-GM crops.

"The science is too new - it is not yet studied in all its aspects so we would not be sure about the environmental impact on the crop," Greenpeace campaign director Ganesh Nochur told World Business Report.

Field studies

The government has so far only allowed a few firms and research bodies to conduct supervised field trials of such crops.

The Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco) has been conducting large-scale field trials of its GM cotton variety in collaboration with US biotech firm Monsanto.

"Any science has to provide benefits for society at large," Raju Barwale, head of Mahyco told World Business Report.

"It's a new area which is proving potential for improving yields, productivity and that cost for farmers and addressing national needs," he said.

India has the world's largest cotton-growing area but yields only about 300kg per hectare - under half the global average of about 650kg.

Farmers divided

"The agricultural sector in the wake of globalisation is trying to reach global standards and become world class agriculture," said Sharad Joshi, chairman of farmers group Kisan Coordination Committee.

"Even the government of India is trying to correct its past mistakes and trying to remove all kinds of restrictions which were imposed on agriculture," Mr Joshi said.

Last October, the government ordered the destruction of 10,000 hectares of genetically modified cotton crops in Gujarat state after protests by environmental activists who claimed it posed health and environment risks.

At the same time the government said the restrictions on the use of BT cotton seeds could be lifted by March 2002.

Farmers have found that BT cotton is resistant to pests and gives a high yield.

"This year in Gujarat farmers have sown cotton crop in a large area, but the yield will be very low," said L. Upadhyay, a farmer from Gujarat.

"Except the BT variety cotton, all others are doing bad. If there is anything that can save the farmer, it is only this variety," he said.

Some farmers though have expressed concerns that approving GM cotton would give multinational companies too much control over them.

The BBC's Vanessa Heaney
"Other countries have already gone down the GM route and last year China tripled its production of BT cotton."
See also:

22 Jan 02 | Business
India nears decision on GM crops
23 Apr 01 | South Asia
Concern over Sri Lanka GM ban
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