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NEW DELHI: India, the world’s largest grower of cotton, has opened the doors to GM varieties after a four-year rearguard battle by academics and powerful farmers’ groups who fear its introduction will lead to hundreds of thousands of poor farmers being forced off the land.

New Delhi’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee has approved the release of Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) cotton into the environment with certain conditions. Bt seeds are genetically modified to contain a common bacterium which protects the cotton from bollworm - the most common pest that attacks cotton crops.

Monsanto, the world’s leading GM company and GM cotton seed producer, which has pressed New Delhi for years to accept the crop, made no statement yesterday pending further announcements on which variety had been approved, but was said to be delighted.

The company has invested millions of pounds buying several of India’s largest seed companies to promote GM varieties if and when the government gave permission. With GM cotton finally approved, India is expected to move swiftly to approve GM foods. GM mustard, potato, fish and other crops are awaiting approval after trials.

If, as expected large-scale Indian farmers switch to the GM varieties, then most of the world’s cotton is expected to be genetically modified within a few years. Up to 90 per cent of all US cotton is now modified, and South Africa, Argentina and other major exporters have all changed in the past three years. China now grows more than 400,000 hectares (1m acres) of GM cotton.

The world supply of GM cotton seeds are effectively in the control of just four companies who own the patents. The companies say their research shows that GM cotton more than halves the need to use insecticides and also increases yields by up to 30 per cent, and returns by 8 per cent. Average Indian yields are about 120kg per hectare, less than half the global average.

The government decision is likely to lead to further confrontations between Monsanto and powerful farmers’ groups who can organize rallies of up to one million people. Field tests of GM cotton in Andhra Pradesh and other states were burnt down in the late 1990s by activists who feared that its introduction would prove suicidal for farmers who would be forced into buying expensive seeds from multinational companies and go further into debt.

The activists have argued that the introduction of GM cotton will lead back to the economic colonization of India by outsiders. Freedom from cotton colonization was a central argument for independence, more than 50 years ago, and handwoven cotton cloth was Mahatma Gandhi’s resistance movement’s symbol of opposition to British rule.

Opponents of GM crops in India called the government approval process a “scandal” and demanded an inquiry.

He and others say the bollworm will develop resistance to the GM crop, as seen in other Bt cotton-growing countries.

Pro-GM groups were delighted. “India has finally joined the community of progressive nations by approving the first biotech crop for use by its farmers”, said Dr CS Prakash, professor in Plant Molecular Genetics and director of the Centre for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University, US.

More than 50m hectares of GM crops are now growrown worldwide across a dozen countries. The vast majority is in the US and Canada, but Argentina and China are thought to be catching up. Brazil, EU countries and others have come under great pressure from the US and its corporations, who largely control the seeds, to allow their introduction and commercialization.—Dawn/The Guardian News Service.