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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 June, 2003, 20:29 GMT 21:29 UK
India's GM seed piracy
Ghosh, BBC
BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh reveals the extent of GM piracy in Gujarat, India

The farmers here like genetic modification (GM). In fact, they like it so much they are illegally cross-breeding Monsanto's insect-resistant cotton with local plants to create their own GM varieties.

Cotton, Monsanto
BT Bollgard produces its own insecticide in its tissues
A BBC investigation has confirmed widespread use of pirate seeds.

Our Delhi correspondent, Geeta Pandey, and I went to the town of Mansa, which is the centre of the trade, to see if we could track down some of the illegal material.

The market town is in the agricultural heart of Gujarat; it is in the wild west of India with its own set of rules and its own set of values.

Last year, Gujarat was one of first Indian states to grow Monsanto's novel cotton crop.

Local requirements

The plant contains genetic material taken from a bacterium. The modification makes the cotton plant's tissues lethal to insect pests, including the economically damaging bollworm.

But farmers here claim to have been using their own illegal versions of this so-called BT Bollgard for several years. And it is thought that a half of all the GM seed now sold in the state is pirated.

As we walked along the bustling high street, we came across a stall belting out the latest Hindi hits - no doubt the usual pirate copies. This is very much the chaotic Indian way: pirate tapes, pirate designer clothes and now pirate GM seeds.

We continued on until we came to one of the many seed shops in Mansa. Geeta applied her charm and persuaded the manager to bring out some of the pirated seed, supposedly "bought from a nearby stall".

The seed is made from cross-fertilising the Bollgard plant with local cotton varieties more suited to the unique Gujarat climate - or so it is claimed.

Old ways, new ways

The pirate seed was half the price of the Monsanto product - and as the shop owner became less coy, he explained how last year the illegal varieties had done better than the US agro-giant's original version.

He said he had begun planting illegal seed himself and took us off to see his two-hectare (five acres) farm.

As we walked along the fields, one of the manager's friends told us there were now several illegal varieties containing the bacterium gene. The fields around us had become an unregulated, open-air laboratory for genetic engineering.

Eventually, we arrived at the manager's small plot. The seed had just begun to sprout and to be frank it looked less healthy than the official Monsanto crop planted in a neighbouring field. But as he emphasised to us, his seed was cheaper and he was a poor farmer.

The leader of the Gujarat farmers, Lalshankar Upadhyay, is pressing the state government to legalise seed piracy. As far as he is concerned, farmers have been creating their own varieties to suit their needs for centuries. It is just that now they are doing it with GM.

We asked him if he could take us to the man who is alleged to have started seed piracy in India - DB Desai. He has become known as the "Robin Hood of GM".

Unforeseen consequences

We followed Mr Upadhyay's car as it hurtled along at 100 kilometres per hour to an unknown location.

We met Mr Desai, who said he was not able to give an interview for legal reasons - but he did serve us a very pleasant cup of tea.

I asked him if he liked being called a Robin Hood. "I don't know," he said. "All these legal problems I have..."

I interjected: "But you are popular." He replied: "No one can doubt that." And he laughed.

The trade in illegal seed has become a major issue of concern for Monsanto. The company's director of communication here, Ranjana Smetcheck, said it feared unregulated GM planting could lead to crop failures.

Monsanto's Indian partner has now lodged an official complaint with the Gujarat government, asking it to clamp down on seed piracy.

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