The Napster pirates of transgenic biotech

How genetically modified cotton escaped Monsanto's control in India, with a little help from Robin Hood

Published February 8, 2007 11:51PM (EST)

2001 was a bad year for bollworms in Gujarat. The pink larval creatures infested cotton fields across the Indian state, devastating harvests.

But some fields, remarkably, were mostly immune. Mayhco, an Indian seed company partially owned by Monsanto, became suspicious. Mayhco and Monsanto had been striving for years to get permission to sell genetically modified Bt cotton in India -- a strain that produces its own anti-bollworm insecticide -- but the application had been fought at every step by India's vigorous anti-GM activists and was undergoing lengthy trials. Sure enough, after testing the cotton, Mayhco determined that it contained the Monsanto-patented gene Cry1ac.

To this day, no one seems to be quite sure exactly how the Bt gene got into the seeds sold to the Gujarat farmers under the brand name Navbharat151. D.B. Desai, the owner of the Navbharat seed company and a well known breeder, claims it was an accident, the result of contamination from test plots in another Indian state where the trials of genetically modified cotton were being conducted. His critics say he is being criminally disingenuous, that he must have knowingly stolen cotton seeds from the trials and interbred them with other cotton strains. To Monsanto, D.B. Desai is a new breed of thief, a biotech pirate.

But to the farmers of Gujarat, he's Robin Hood, the man who took genetic modification technology from the rich, and gave it to the poor. Because while the dispute as to the origin of the seeds hasn't been settled, there's been little doubt as to their effectiveness. Yields are up, pesticide use is down, a state of affairs that continues to the present; even though Desai was arrested and Navbharat forbidden from selling the contested seeds.

But it's what has happened after the ban on Navbharat151 that is really intriguing. As farmers are wont to do, they saved their seeds, and discovered that the second generation was also resistant to bollworm depredation. Some even experimented with interbreeding the Navbharat151 genetic line with other strains of cotton particularly suited to Gujarat conditions, and came up with new strains that proved effective. Local seed companies sprang up to commercialize the descendant breeds. And even though Mayhco-Monsanto has since been allowed to sell its own cotton seeds, the local bootlegged versions have proved more popular. And why not? According to reports, they're much cheaper, and, from the point of view of local farmers, perform as well or better than the "official" alternatives.

As anthropologist Glenn Davis Stone writes in a forthcoming article, "The Birth and Death of Traditional Knowledge: Paradoxical Effects of Biotechnology in India:"

Indeed, it is now well documented that these orphan seeds became the basis for a thriving cottage industry of Bt cotton breeding (illegal, because none of the seeds were approved by [India's Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee].) Some of the breeding was being carried out by those with technical training (such as graduate students at Gujarat Agricultural University) but much was being done by farmers. Rather remarkably, some farmers were even maintaining inbred lines and producing their own hybrids. The Gujarat cotton fields turned into what Anil Gupta (a leader in studying and promoting farmer innovation) termed "the greatest participatory farmer plant-breeding mela [carnival] in history."

By 2003, Gujarat shops were awash with illicit Bt seeds, many with coy names alluding to the technology ("BesT Cotton") or to Desai's original product ("Kapas-151"), or underscoring that they were first generation hybrids ("Kavach F-1"). For brand after brand, PCR testing at the Central Inst. of Cotton Research confirmed the presence of the Cry1ac gene. In 2004, industry's claims that over half of all the GM cotton growing in India was from unapproved seeds were generally regarded as realistic. By the 2005 season, Navbharat's own surveys indicated 80 percent of the cotton growing in Gujarat to be from illicit Bt seeds.

Professor Stone was kind enough to provide me with advance proofs of his article. Further detail on Gujarat is available in Ronald J. Herring's "Stealth seeds: Bioproperty, biosafety, biopolitics," one of many articles devoted to the implications of crop biotechnology for the developing world in the January issue of the Journal of Development Studies. A somewhat more conflicted analysis can also be found in Anil Gupta's and Vikas Chandak's "Agricultural Biotechnology in India: Ethics, Business and Politics."

Conflicted, because the events taking place in Gujarat are confounding to critics of corporate biotech, and not just to those who have strenuously argued, in India, that transgenic cotton is not an improvement over non-modified varieties. Farmer advocates are wincing at the sight of a mass experiment in unauthorized biotechnology, even as they acknowledge the clear benefits that farmers appear to be enjoying. As Gupta and Chandak write,

"Undoubtedly, the experience of Gujarat will be recalled in the history of biotechnology as one of the largest trials (with full public knowledge and without any responsible monitoring or evaluation by public agencies at similar scale) of an illegally released technology ever done by people themselves, oblivious of any environmental or other consequence."

Gupta and Chandak are dismayed by what the Gujarat cotton episode implies for government capacity to regulate biotechnology. But yet another twist to the story is that Monsanto also doesn't have too much reason to cheer. One might assume that the ratification of Bt cotton by farmers would be an unambiguous victory for Monsanto. But the popularity of the bootleg Bt cotton also spells out how difficult it may end up for corporations to capitalize, in the long term, on their transgenic intellectual property. Because they can't control it either. Gujarat's cotton farmers are an analog to Napster's file traders. Intellectual property turns out to be easy to steal, even when it is hard-coded as a gene. Or, as Herring observes in the Journal of Developmental Studies, "Social institutions will not deal with stealth seeds very well, as they do not deal with any high-value product that is movable across permeable state space: software, pornography, information, drugs, arms."

Herring suggests that a likely solution is real "terminator" technology -- crops designed so their seeds cannot be saved and replanted. But that creates its own paradox: Even though so-called "terminator technology" has yet to be deployed anywhere, the specter of such seeds is probably the single most successful rhetorical rallying cry for the anti-GMO movement, particularly in developing nations with huge farmer populations.

So Monsanto and its brethren are in a position where politically, they cannot employ a technology (even supposing that they could make it work) that would enable them to maintain control over their intellectual property, and anti-GM activists are in a position where their opposition to just such a technology ensures the uncontrollable spread of transgenic genes. The only way out of this cul-de-sac would be to politically enforce a complete worldwide moratorium on all genetic modification research, and that isn't going to happen. It's not just that farmers on the ground in Gujarat are desperate for cotton strains that allow them to forego expensive (and environmentally dangerous) applications of pesticide. The very notion that biotech is primarily under the corporate control of a few multinationals is also suspect. China, India, and Brazil are all investing substantial public resources into crop biotechnology, and all have a huge interest in improving yields, pesticide resistance, drought hardiness, and so on. And that's not even considering the immense financial and environmental pressures that will spur research into and deployment of transgenic energy crops.

If what Stone labels the "anarcho-capitalism" of Gujarat is an indication of what is likely to transpire in the future (and it seems that a somewhat similar scenario may have played out in Brazil with transgenic soybeans), then what this all adds up to, frankly, is an incredible mess. Corporations will be unable to control how their biotech is used. Green activists won't be able to stop its spread. Governments, no matter how well-meaning, are unlikely to effectively implement biosafety protocols that are 100 percent certain to screen out all possible risks. In some cases, as in Gujarat, farmers will take advantage of new technologies and mix and match with what they know how to do best: as Stone writes, "the tortured history of Bt technology in Gujarat has been instrumental in them becoming reinvolved in experimentation, assessment and even developing their own seeds," in stark contrast to the situation in another Indian state, Andhra Pradesh, where the introduction of GM cotton appears to have actively "deskilled" farmers.

Should we be dismayed by this profusion of complexity, or heartened? One encouraging lesson is that while the Monsantos of the world are extraordinarily powerful, they are not all powerful. Another could be the observation that transgenic biotech can indeed make a positive difference in the lives of farmers, especially when they are given the freedom to experiment and adapt. Yet another is that farmers are not automatically helpless pawns in the face of corporate capital -- they can coopt new technologies and create new agricultural practices.

Still another is that the situation on the ground is changing, all the time, and with great speed, and we had better keep paying very close attention.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Biotechnology Globalization How The World Works India Monsanto