India rejects plea for gene cotton variety

By Naveen Thukral

NEW DELHI, April 25 (Reuters) - India said on Friday it had rejected a plea by a Bombay-based company to produce a genetically modified cotton hybrid as it was not resistant to cotton leaf curl virus.

The application for commercial production of the hybrid was made by Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co (MAHYCO), in which U.S. biotech giant Monsanto Company (NYSE:MON - News) has a 26 percent stake.

"This variety, MECH 915, has not been found resistant to cotton leaf curl virus. This cannot be introduced as it is not resistant," Sushma Choudhary, chairwoman of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), told reporters.

"It has not been approved."

The GEAC had in March last year allowed production of three genetically modified cotton hybrids by MAHYCO. The approval of the GEAC is mandatory for field trials and commercial production of GM crops in the country.

MAHYCO's Managing Director Raju Barwale said his company would continue to push for the technology to be used.

"While MAHYCO is disappointed at not receiving clearance for MECH 915, we will continue to work within the government's regulatory system to bring the benefits of this technology to cotton farmers of northern India," a company spokeswoman quoted Raju Barwale as saying.

It was the first genetically engineered hybrid allowed for commercial sowing by the government after more than five years of field trials and laboratory tests.

A spokesman for the environment ministry said there would be no further trials of MECH 915 as "it has been rejected by the panel".

Trials for MECH 915 were carried out for commercial production in the northern Indian states where cotton leaf curl virus is common.

"The committee...noted with concern the highly sensitive nature of this BT (bacillus thuringiensis) cotton hybrid towards leaf curl virus that affects the yield of cotton and is rampant in the area where it is to be grown," a government statement said.

The BT cotton contains the "Cry 1 Ac" gene and is resistant to the cotton bollworm, which can cause heavy damage to crops.

The company started limited field trials of its BT seed in 1996/97 but has faced opposition from environmentalists and farmers worried about its safety and the transparency of the trial data.

India, the world's third largest cotton producer, annually grows around 14 to 15 million bales weighing 170 kg each.

GENE MUSTARD

The GEAC has also been considering whether to allow cultivation of genetically modified mustard, which, supporters say, could boost yields by 25 percent.

At its meeting on Friday, GEAC ordered fresh trials on the mustard for which a unit of German multinational group Bayer AG (XETRA:BAYG.DE - News), Pro Agro Seed Company Ltd, is seeking permission for commercial production.

"As regards the commercial release of transgenic mustard...the committee was of the view that the trials conducted by the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) are not conclusive," the statement said.

India, the world's fourth largest producer of mustard, grew 4.7 million tonnes in 2000/01 (November-October).

"The committee also noted that mustard being an edible crop, further studies to establish health safety aspect need to be conducted," the statement said.