Biotech’s Black Market

An agricultural mystery in India has set off concerns over a growing underground trade in genetically engineered seeds.

Fellows Spring 2002

By Douglas McGray

June 05, 2009

Navbharat Seeds Limited has the feel of a place that nobody had heard of until it was infamous. The company inhabits a small, hot, nearly windowless corner of a walk-up building amid the cows, the beggars, and the AT&T Wireless ads of downtown Ahmedabad in western India. There, beneath the office's sole decorative touch -- a poster urging " Don't worry, be happy"-- Navbharat's employees mostly mill around these days, reading about their boss, D.B. Desai, in the national newspapers, waiting to see whether the Indian government will throw him in jail.

Desai extends a fleshy hand across his desk and smiles nervously. He is a little man, with gray hair combed back from his round forehead and a slight slouch that gives him a shrinking quality. Nothing about him suggests a man whom supporters call the "Robin Hood of biotechnology" and whom enemies attack as an unscrupulous agricultural pirate. And to hear Desai talk, he is neither; he's simply a businessman like hundreds of others, maybe a bit luckier, or unluckier, depending on how you look at it. His particular business just happened to set off a controversy that has embarrassed politicians and grabbed the attention of multinational corporations -- and that may yet change the face of agriculture in India and beyond.

Desai is a grower and seller of seeds, and about four years ago he began selling an unusual variety, a kind of cotton called Navbharat 151. Its most notable feature was that it killed the cotton plant's main enemy, an ugly, greenish larva called the bollworm. It killed bollworms, in fact, just as efficiently as the "magic" seed many of India's cotton growers had heard about -- a variety made by Monsanto that had been genetically engineered to produce the naturally occurring pesticide bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. Since its introduction in the United States in 1996, Bt cotton has come to account for almost 40 percent of the U.S. cotton crop. But Indian farmers, until recently, could not grow it: Here, in the world's second largest farming nation, genetically modified crops remained banned amid concerns that they could prove unsafe, and that greater corporate control of agriculture could put subsistence farmers out of business.

Desai's customers were not subsistence farmers, by and large; they ran commercial operations, many of them upwards of 20 acres in size. When Desai began selling his new variety in 1998 -- and claimed that this cotton didn't need to be sprayed for pest control -- they didn't know what to think. "I thought he was crazy," one recalls.

Then, in the summer of 2001, a catastrophic bollworm attack struck the state of Gujarat, where most of Desai's seed had been sold. Whole fields were wiped out in a few months, but those planted with Navbharat 151 were untouched. Monsanto's Indian business partner, a firm called Mahyco, grew suspicious. Its investigators tested some samples of the cotton and determined that the plants contained the Bt gene. Navbharat 151, in other words, looked a lot like a bootleg version of Monsanto's Bt seed -- the agricultural equivalent of a black-market, pre-release copy of Windows XP.

Except that unlike software, seeds at the time were not protected by India's intellectual-property laws. Monsanto could not sue Desai for violating its patent. The Indian government has filed criminal charges against him for selling an unapproved genetically engineered crop. But to win in court, it will have to prove that Desai knew that the seeds held the crucial bit of DNA -- and that his cotton didn't pick up the Bt gene, as Desai claims, by accident, through cross-pollination from a Monsanto test plot.

Now, while Desai awaits a court hearing, Bt cotton is being planted across India -- legally. In March, India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee granted Monsanto the first-ever license to market a genetically engineered crop on the subcontinent, a move most observers believe was precipitated by the publicity over Navbharat 151. Though Monsanto's Indian division has urged the government to take "strong and immediate action" against Desai, corporate spokeswoman Ranjana Smetacek admits that the incident probably didn't hurt the company's cause. "We didn't have to demonstrate the benefit of Bt cotton," she says. News that fields in Gujarat had remained green amid a bollworm attack traveled around the country, and -- for some farmers, at least -- concerns about the high-tech crop quickly withered.

P.K. Ghosh thinks Desai knew exactly what he was doing. In his office at India's Department of Biotechnology, files are piled in gravity-defying stacks that spread across two desks and down to the floor. Ghosh, whose heavy bangs and round face give him a boyish appearance, is a senior scientist in the department and an adviser to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, which is testing nearly 30 crop varieties that various firms hope to market to Indian farmers. When the Navbharat scandal broke, Ghosh was put in charge of investigating Desai.

In October, after confirming that Desai's seed contained the Monsanto gene, Ghosh and his colleagues ordered the government of Gujarat to recall any Navbharat 151 cotton they could find; confiscate and destroy all Navbharat 151 seed; and uproot and burn every field where Desai's variety had been found, some 11,000 acres in all. And they summoned Desai to New Delhi. "I said, 'How many years were you doing work in breeding?'" Ghosh recalls. Twenty or thirty years, Desai said. "I said, 'Do you think you have seen any material that is as resistant to bollworm as this one?' He did not give any reply." Instead, Desai maintained that his cotton had been "polluted" by cross-pollination, and he claimed to know little about the history of the varieties he used to breed it. Ghosh did not buy the who me? defense -- not from a prosperous entrepreneur with a Ph.D. from the United States. "He is a liar," Ghosh bristles. "I want to send this man to jail."

But the government's offensive against Desai began unraveling shortly after it began. Early this year, the cotton recall was canceled when the Gujarat state government balked at the cost of reimbursing farmers. Recalling Navbharat seeds was similarly ineffective. As for uprooting and burning the fields, Desai says, that order -- if implemented -- could have set off "a law and order situation."

Though India is home to one of the world's most visible movements opposing genetically engineered crops, the country's organized commercial growers have recently been among biotechnology's top boosters. Their representatives wield considerable political clout, and when the government cracked down on Navbharat, they rallied to support Desai. First among them was Sharad Joshi, a former diplomat who heads India's most powerful farmers association, Shetkari Sanghatana. "I call him Robin Hood," said Joshi, who credits Desai with forcing the government to legalize genetically engineered cotton. "A biotech Robin Hood."

When the government announced its plan to burn Gujarat's cotton fields, Joshi rallied tens of thousands of farmers at protests across three Indian states. "We made a decision that we will not allow the government officials, the police, and the army to touch even a leaf of these things," he said as we sat in the living room of one of his former deputies in Pune, near Bombay. A rare breeze blew in through a wide picture window, along with the din of children and traffic from the street below. "We decided that groups of 100 women would be sent to each village which has got this crop," Joshi recalled, "and they would not allow the police force to intervene.

"Suddenly the government became wise," he concluded, a smile spreading beneath his graying John Waters mustache.

As Joshi knows, farmers are the emotional favorites in any dispute in India -- and they have a famously independent steak. Just before India legalized Monsanto's cotton, Joshi told reporters that, should approval be delayed, he would organize widespread sowing of illegal genetically engineered seed as a "large-scale civil disobedience."

Many farmers freely acknowledge that they plan to grow genetically engineered crops, approved or not, and they shrug off restrictions such as the Indian government's dictate, supported by Monsanto research, that at least 20 percent of any Bt cotton field be planted with conventional cotton to keep the bollworm from developing resistance. How can something made in the United States, many of them wonder aloud, be unsafe in India? "I think they grow it in China and other countries," says Kalidas Patel, who grew Navbharat cotton in Gujarat. "I don't know why these people have made such a fuss." S. Jaipal Reddy, a farmer with a 25-acre plot outside Hyderabad, told me that he had been siphoning off seed from his Bt cotton trial plot to plant next season, regardless of what the government said. Other Gujarat growers have traveled to Thailand to buy genetically engineered papaya seeds.

All this worries scientists -- including those working on developing new genetically engineered crops. Kiran K. Sharma, a senior scientist at the vast ICRISAT crop lab outside Hyderabad, hopes to engineer a superior pigeon pea, an important nutritional crop for India's poor. But first, he and his colleagues are doing extensive tests to find out how the plants will behave in the local environment. They are looking, especially, for "gene flow"-- the exchange of DNA between varieties that could allow engineered genes to spread between fields, or from crops to their wild relatives.

Safety tests from another region -- say, the United States -- may be meaningless in India, researchers note: A drop in temperature, a stiffer breeze, a different batch of wild relatives, even different farming practices can change how a crop behaves in any given environment. In what scientists call a crop's center of diversity -- a region where, say, rice or wheat originated -- the wrong sort of genetically engineered plant could threaten thousands of varieties with extinction. "The difference between medical biotechnology and crops is, if something goes wrong, you can withdraw a drug," says N. Seetharama, another ICRISAT scientist. With plants, "once it goes wrong in the environment, you can't do anything. Especially here."

Still, indications are that Bt cotton won't be the last genetically engineered variety to find its way into India's fields. When Desai was outed last September, India offered no patent protection for seeds like Monsanto's; in fact, just a month earlier, the nation's Parliament had passed legislation allowing farmers to protect local crop varieties without patenting them, and to conserve and sell their own seed. This year, however, the government has initiated steps to reverse that position, joining an international agreement that requires member countries to honor corporate patents on crops. The move was a major defeat for activists like Suman Sahai, a former genetics professor whose organization, Gene Campaign, offered India's most visible opposition to Monsanto cotton.

In Sahai's view, India appears to be embracing genetically engineered crops and patents just as it was poised to become an example of how poor countries could balance the interests of farmers and multinational corporations. Allowing crop patents, Sahai and other critics note, will make the seed business in India more profitable for international companies, but it probably won't deter illegal planting. Like most countries, India has no system to check farmers' fields, or imported seeds, for the presence of genetically modified material. R.K. Khetarpal, India's top quarantine official, says his agency is working on a system to check imports at the border, but it won't be ready for years.

India is not alone in its predicament. Two years ago in Brazil, where officials were also anxious about allowing the entry of a Monsanto product, reporters turned up evidence of significant smuggling of genetically engineered soy over the border from Argentina. Soon after reports of the abuses showed up in the press, Brazil approved planting the crop in test plots. Another source of concern for many experts is China, one of the world's leading producers of genetically engineered seeds. "Illegal planting is a very worrying indication of how this technology could go," says Sahai. "I'm not sure the developing countries are equipped."

Meanwhile, India's Navbharat Limited is infamous. Desai is still waiting for his hearing. And Monsanto's Bt cotton is on back order throughout the country. "It reflects a sorry state of affairs about the entire system," Desai says glumly.