‘We support the need for labeling food products if there is a scientific reason’

TEHELKA editor Shoma Chaudhury held an emailed interview of Dr Gyanendra Shukla, Director, Monsanto (India), where a wide range of issues pertaining to Bt (Bacillus Thuringiensis) seeds, GM foods, food security etc. Here is a complete transcript of the interview.

March 6, 2010 in Politics
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What do you think about the moratorium on Bt brinjal. Do you think it was justified and a wise decision?
We have strong confidence in the Indian Regulatory system which is on par with global regulatory bodies and one of the most stringent in the world. We believe and support a stringent and transparent science-based regulatory system for the approval of biotech crops.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has encouraged research on biotechnology in agriculture. In keeping with the same, we hope to continue to conduct research in our focus crops – cotton, corn and vegetables, in compliance with the Regulatory protocols. We believe that better seed, biotech-enhancements, and improved agronomic practices hold the long-term solution to increasing crop productivity sustainably.

Do you think the public consultations Jairam Ramesh held muddied the issue or did they yield useful insights?
In India, a wide panel of food, plant and scientific experts ensure safe introduction of plant biotechnology for the benefit of the nation. The Indian Regulatory System has its checks and measures in place to ensure accuracy and authenticity of data furnished to them. The Public Consultations added various perspectives from a cross section of stakeholders and to an extent helped increase some amount of public awareness.

At Monsanto, our Pledge is our commitment to how we do business. It compels us to listen more, be transparent, to consider our actions, and their impact broadly, and to lead responsibly. In keeping with the same, we will continue to engage transparently, with the farmers, media and other stakeholders to share information and address any concerns. There is need for more awareness and dialogue, and we are committed to the same.

Of all the objections raised, which ones do you think require further consideration and examination?
Please contact Mahyco, as Bt brinjal is their product.

Why does Monsanto resist labeling its GM and Biotech foods?
Since biotech-enhanced crops came onto the market, there’s been a lot of debate about whether their food products containing ingredients, from biotech-enhanced crops should be labeled. Some people believe it’s a right-to-know issue, and all products containing ingredients from biotech-enhanced crops should be labeled as such. Others believe that since there’s no difference between biotech-enhanced and non- biotech-enhanced ingredients, labeling shouldn’t be required.

Labeling of products containing ingredients made from biotech crops would be required if the food were any different than a conventional variety. Since commodity biotech products are equivalent to their conventional counterparts, regulatory authorities around the world have found that foods from biotech crops are as safe as those from conventional crops, and hence do not require to be labeled. Moreover, mandatory labeling may result in a higher price for food for consumers and would infuse even further regulatory compliance obligations on food companies without a demonstrable benefit.

We support the need for labeling if there is a scientific reason for it – for e.g. if the nutritional composition of the biotech-enhanced product is substantially different from that of the non- biotech-enhanced product. The cost of specialty product marketing and labeling however, should be borne by those who prefer to make the distinction and extract value from the specialty market.

We comply with the law wherever we do business and work to cooperate with the industry and consumers to share meaningful information. We support voluntary labeling so long as the information is accurate, truthful and avoids misleading consumers about the products.

What is Monsanto’s vision in India? What is your role in the KIA?
When farmers succeed, we succeed. Monsanto is focused 100 per cent on agriculture and is committed to innovating and partnering to help improve productivity for Indian farmers. As an organization committed to sustainable agriculture, we develop products which enable farmers to produce more using fewer natural resources (land, water, energy), and improves their lives. We have partnered with Indian farmers for over four decades by providing biotech traits and high-yielding seeds in corn, cotton, and vegetables; as well as agricultural herbicide products, and training on agronomic practices. We are committed to small farmer-focused innovations and partnerships to help improve productivity and lives of Indian farmers and help make India a self-sufficient leading contributor in global agriculture.

On KIA, the Board of the U.S.-India Knowledge Initiative laid the groundwork for a new chapter in the partnership by focusing on innovative joint projects in which both the public and private sectors can cooperate. The aim is to promoting the development and adoption of science and technology to increase agricultural productivity. These projects help identify collaborative scientific research, development and commercialization; promote traditional and emerging technologies, including biotechnology; facilitate technology transfer; foster sound, transparent scientific policies; support internationally recognized regulatory frameworks; develop viable agricultural market systems and infrastructure, and create investments in science, technology and agribusiness. Our continued commitment to Indian agriculture is to provide unique products that will help farmers produce more using fewer natural resources (land, water, energy), and improves their lives.

Do you feel some of the regulatory regimes around agriculture should change? If so, what?
We believe, agriculture needs an enabling environment that encourages innovation & partnerships – the three pillars of which are:
1. Visionary Policies to encourage R&D investment, innovation and promotes wider choice and competitive markets;
2. Stable, transparent regulation: Regulation that is scientific and fact-based; is stable and clear in process; re-confirms safety to all stakeholders; and offers simplicity in compliance; and,
3. Strict and swift Enforcement of IPR laws to protect investments and technologies developed for the benefit of farmers, consumers, and the nation.

Mr Jagadisan, your former managing director, has gone on record to say Monsanto and other corporates routinely get clearances from government regulatory and control boards based on data provided by the company. Do you think this practice is kosher? Should it change?
The statements made by T.V. Jagadeesan are completely untrue and not based on facts.

The Indian Regulatory system has evolved taking into cognizance the Regulatory systems from around the world. It is compliant with Codex Alimentarius Commission (created by FAO and WHO to develop food standards, guidelines and related texts for safety testing of GM Crops), and is among the best in class today comparable with other nations that approve GM crops for cultivation and import.

MOEF’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has put in place a stringent science-based regulatory regime comprising three ministries – Min. of Science & Technology, Environment & Forests, and Agriculture. The entire regulatory process takes four-seven years and no biotech crops are allowed in the market until they undergo extensive and rigid crop safety assessments, following strict scientific protocols. In fact, as a nation we tested the only approved biotech crop in India – Bt cotton, for seven years prior to its approval in 2002 (the longest globally).

Do you think biotech crops are crucial to a Second Green Revolution in India? Why?
Agriculture has a history of creating new dimensions of performance and making dramatic productivity improvements when innovation, improved seeds and better farming practices are deployed. Technological innovations have played a key role in past transformations. The sharp rise in food grain production during India’s Green Revolution enabled the country to achieve self-sufficiency and overcome the threat of famine. At the time, agriculture experts, farmers, the public and private sector did what was required at the time to feed the nation and generations for decades after. Faced with a renewed and bigger challenge, we believe that as a nation, we must do what’s needed and what’s right, keeping the current and future generations in mind.

Innovations in seed through breeding and biotechnology have yielded results. Seed can be the biggest differentiator in agriculture. While seed constitutes approx. 10% of the input cost, it has proven yield impact on crop yield up to 40%. Our farmers have proven that given the right tools and the best seeds, they can increase crop productivity and improve their livelihoods.

India’s success with better seeds with Bt cotton technology is a stellar example. Within 6-7 years of introduction of seeds with Bt cotton technology, farmers, Indian seed companies, the Govt., State Agriculture Universities and Technology Providers have partnered to make India the world’s second largest producer and second largest exporter of cotton (after China) by doubling cotton production to 315 lakh bales in 2007-08 from 136 lakh bales in 2002-03. Higher cotton yields from better bt cotton seed have resulted in additional income of Rs. 40,000+ crores to India’s GDP. Across India, yields on bt cotton fields are up 50%- 100%; farmers are saving Rs. 2500 per acre on less pesticide usage; earning 64% or Rs. 8,000 per acre higher income; and experiencing peace of mind

There is a unique role for technology in agriculture in the Indian scenario – be it high-yielding seeds with better inherent genetic potential combined with biotech-enabled insect protection, stress tolerance, and better weed management to protect productivity/yields. The Plan document speaks of yield fatigue and technology fatigue as the two main constraints in the development of Indian agriculture. Seed with superior genetics and state-of-the-art technology is the most important input for growth in agriculture. Crop biotech scientists are developing technologies that offer drought-tolerance, salt tolerance, insect-protection, rust-tolerance, nitrogen-efficiency etc. for the benefit of Indian farmers to meet the needs of an ever-increasing population. Currently, R&D is underway in many crops, both in the private and public sector laboratories. Dept. of Biotech (DBT) Budget (R&D and Capacity Building) Budget has witnessed a 16-fold increase in 11th Five-Year Plan (Rs. 6,400 crores for 2007-2012) from 8th Five-Year Plan (Rs. 400 crores for 1992-1997).

We believe innovation and partnerships in agriculture can drive India’s next farmer-led economic boom. India can not only attain food and water security but perhaps also achieve pride of place by being a global contributor to meeting the world’s food, feed, and fibre needs.

The first green revolution was engineered on the basis of pesticides and agro-chemicals (in which your company is a huge player.) We are now told that pesticides are extremely harmful and is destroying soil and agriculture. Over use of pesticides in fact is cited as the main reason for switching to BT crops — which will serve to combat pesticides. How do you explain this?

As a category, pesticides consist of four segments: insecticide, fungicide, herbicide (to manage weeds), and rodenticides. Monsanto’s focus in agricultural productivity has been with herbicides.

As a category, pesticides have played an important role in improving food productivity, and responsible use of pesticides will continue to play a part in managing the food supply chain, along with various other input technologies.

Bt has played an important role in agriculture for decades including organic agriculture. Bt in the current form is far more effective in controlling targeted insects. Globally, microbial Bt products have been in use for over 40 years with exemplary safety record. In India these products have been in use since 1990 and were accorded priority registration on account of high level of safety.

Why should consumers and producers believe biotech is a beneficial product and will not prove disastrous in the years to come? What are you doing to allay fears about biotech?
The Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) insect-protection products available in India today are only the first generation of biotech-enhanced products cultivated since 1996 globally. Second-generation biotech-enhanced products provide weed management, and third- and fourth-generation products will provide drought-tolerance, nitrogen-efficiency, healthier oils, and yield enhancements.

With regards biotech products, the UN WHO, FAO, European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), UK’s Royal Academy of Sciences, French Academy of Medicine, British Medical Association all concluded that Bt crops are as safe as their non Bt counterparts. 25 Nobel Prize recipients and over 3,400 prominent scientists have expressed their support for agri biotech as a “powerful and safe” way to improve agriculture and the environment.

Biotech-enhanced crops have a 13 year history of safe use. No adverse effects on health have been reported on any biotech product introduced anywhere in the world so far. Plant biotechnology products are studied much more extensively than any other plant product, providing equal or greater assurance of safety of these products compared to conventional plant varieties. 55 countries incl. USA, Canada, Mexico, South Korea, Australia, Philippines, New Zealand, the European Union and China have established regulatory systems and post stringent biosafety and efficacy assessments, approved biotech crops’ cultivation, import for food-feed use, and environmental release since 1996.

Billions of meals from or derived from agri biotech products have been consumed globally. GM food has also been safely cultivated and consumed across the world, including tomato (China), papaya (USA, China), corn (16 countries), and squash and zucchini (USA).

As a responsible company, with a focus on sustainable agriculture, we would also like reiterate our commitment to ensuring safe product stewardship through our seed product’s lifecycle – from discovery to introduction to discontinuity; in addition to compliance with the regulatory requirements in the country.

At Monsanto, our Pledge is our commitment to how we do business. It compels us to listen more, be transparent, to consider our actions, and their impact broadly, and to lead responsibly. In line with it, we continue with our various outreach programs which continue to benefit our farmers. These include farmer programs and communication material on technology benefits, best agronomic practices etc through events, educational posters, advertisements, films, joint events with the local Government, etc. In India alone, we conduct over a hundred thousand farmer awareness and education programs, and engage in over a million direct farmer contacts annually.

Given that biotech vegetables will mean direct human consumption — are you open to much longer and multi-generational safety trials? Also, have you done any tests that prove there are no human receptors to the Bt protein?
The current system of testing safety of biotech products globally based on the Codex Alimentarius Commission is quite comprehensive. The Codex Alimentarius Commission was created in 1963 by FAO and WHO to develop food standards, guidelines and related texts aimed at protecting health of the consumers and ensuring fair trade practices in the food trade and promoting coordination of all food standards work undertaken by international governmental and non-governmental organizations.

The Indian Regulatory system which is at par with global regulatory bodies (US, EFSA, Australia, Japan, Korea etc.) has its checks and measures in place to ensure accuracy and authenticity of data furnished to them. No biotech crops are allowed in the market until they undergo extensive and rigid crop safety assessments, following strict scientific protocols. GEAC is constantly striving to improve the delivery system while ensuring the health of the environment, human beings and animals, in order to consider the grant of commercial approval of biotech crops as well as encourage the research and cultivation of other beneficial technologies.

As a responsible company, with our focus on sustainable agriculture, we would also like reiterate our commitment to ensuring safe product stewardship through our seed product’s lifecycle – from discovery to introduction to discontinuity; in addition to compliance with the regulatory requirements in the country.

Biotech-enhanced crops have a 13 year history of safe use. No adverse effects on health have been reported on any biotech product introduced anywhere in the world so far. Plant biotechnology products are studied much more extensively than any other plant product, providing equal or greater assurance of safety of these products compared to conventional plant varieties. 55 countries incl. USA, Canada, Mexico, South Korea, Australia, Philippines, New Zealand, the European Union and China have established regulatory systems and post stringent biosafety and efficacy assessments, approved biotech crops’ cultivation, import for food-feed use, and environmental release since 1996.

Billions of meals from or derived from agri biotech products have been consumed globally. GM food has also been safely cultivated and consumed across the world, including tomato (China), papaya (USA, China), corn (16 countries), and squash and zucchini (USA). The UN WHO, FAO, European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), UK’s Royal Academy of Sciences, French Academy of Medicine, British Medical Association all concluded that Bt crops are as safe as their non Bt counterparts. 25 Nobel Prize recipients and over 3,400 prominent scientists have expressed their support for agri biotech as a “powerful and safe” way to improve agriculture and the environment.

Monsanto has been involved in several disturbing consumer / environment / farmer vs corporate cases in the US and elsewhere. What learnings has the company taken from this? What changes in corporate practice have you effected?
When farmers succeed, we succeed. Monsanto is focused 100 per cent on agriculture; and applies innovation and technology to help millions of farmers around the world produce more, conserve more and grow yields sustainably so they can be successful, produce healthier foods, better animal feeds and more fiber, while also reducing agriculture’s impact on the environment by conserving more of natural resources.

For perspective, Monsanto patents many of the seed varieties we develop. Patents are necessary to ensure that we are paid for our products and for all the investments we put into developing these products. This is one of the basic reasons for patents. A more important reason is to help foster innovation. Without the protection of patents there would be little incentive for privately-owned companies to pursue and re-invest in innovation. Monsanto invests more than Rs. 5,000 crorers per year in research and development that ultimately benefits farmers and consumers. Without the protection of patents, this would not be possible.

When farmers purchase a patented seed variety, they sign an agreement that they will not save and replant seeds produced from the seed they buy from us. In the US, more than 300,000 farmers a year buy seed under these agreements. Other seed companies too sell their seed under similar provisions. They understand the basic simplicity of the agreement, which is that a business must be paid for its product. The vast majority of farmers understand and appreciate our research and are willing to pay for our inventions and the value they provide. They don’t think it’s fair that some farmers don’t pay.

A very small percentage of farmers do not honor this agreement. Monsanto does become aware, through our own actions or through third-parties, of individuals who are suspected of violating our patents and agreements. Where we do find violations, we are able to settle most of these cases without ever going to trial. In many cases, these farmers remain our customers. Sometimes however, we are forced to resort to lawsuits. This is a relatively rare circumstance, with 140 lawsuits filed since 1997 in the United States, as of December 2009. This averages about 10 per year for the past 12 years. To date, only 9 cases have gone through full trial. In every one of these instances, the jury or court decided in our favor.

Whether the farmer settles right away, or the case settles during or through trial, the proceeds are donated to youth leadership initiatives including scholarship programs.

We pursue these matters for three main reasons. First, no business can survive without being paid for its product. Second, the loss of this revenue would hinder our ability to invest in research and development to create new products to help farmers. We currently invest over Rs. 5,000 crores per year to develop and bring new products to market. Third, it would be unfair to the farmers that honor their agreements to let others get away with getting it for free. Farming, like any other business, is competitive and farmers need a level playing field.

Monsanto is a responsible company. We follow local laws regarding our efforts with governments and conduct routine audits to ensure our efforts are transparent, appropriate and legal.

From our six decades in India and experiences around the world, we have learned that one business model may not be a fit for all countries. A business model needs to be based on a fair, competitive basis. A unique model needs to be evolved as per the local environment and needs of the country – working with the local seed and biotech industry, and Govt., often in Public Private Partnerships etc. For example, we have a model for selling soya in Brazil, where we have tied up with aggregators and crushers. The opportunity and the challenge is that this has never been done before, which is incredibly liberating because you are creating a model that is unique and beneficial across the supply chain, from lab to farm to fork.

What is Monsanto’s relationship with Mahyco? Do you have a veto power in the company?
Monsanto’s association with Mahyco is restricted to the extent of a minority stake of 26% in the company, through Monsanto Holdings Pvt. Ltd. (MHPL) – a 100% subsidiary of Monsanto Company, USA that we purchased in the 1990s.

Additionally, Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech (MMB) – a 50:50 joint-venture between Mahyco and MHPL, markets Bollgard II and Bollgard Bt cotton technologies.

What patent / royalty arrangement does Monsanto have with other seed companies and sellers in India?
(No reply)

What is the royalty agreement with Mahyco?
Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Limited (MMB) – 50:50 Joint Venture between Mahyco and MHPL, markets and sub-licenses our insect-protection Bt cotton technologies (Bollgard® II and Bollgard®) to 28 seed companies in India who market their Indian cotton seed varieties with insect-protection Bt cotton technologies to farmers. MMB duly receives a technology fee.

There are great and genuine fears about seed sovereignty and corporate monopoly over agricultural production with Monsanto’s entry into India’s agricultural market. What is your response to that?
Firstly, it is important to distinguish between seed (the hardware) and technology (the software).

Farmers are intelligent businesspeople and choose the seeds that provide them with the highest yield, income and ease of cultivation. As a result, many choose biotech-enhanced seeds (whether produced by Monsanto or one of our competitors) for higher yields and lower input costs.

Monsanto develops and sells its own biotech traits in our seed germplasm as well as licenses to competitors to use our biotech traits in their seed germplasm.

This broad Licensing accomplishes two things:
· It makes the market MORE competitive because our competitors are able to offer Monsanto biotech traits or other competing biotech traits to their customers.
· Farmers get to choose from a wider variety of seed germplasm developed to suit local agronomic conditions, yet have the option of using Monsanto biotech traits.

Many of the numbers often cited for Monsanto’s market share are misleading. They fail to distinguish between Monsanto seed products and seeds sold by competitors who are licensed to use our traits. Typically, activists list the two categories as “Monsanto’s share of the market” because it is more dramatic.

India is the world’s most competitive market for both, cotton seed, and Bt cotton technology. Five million cotton farmers choose from over 300 hybrid bt cotton seed varieties from over 30 competing seed companies with six insect-protection bt cotton technologies (Mahyco-Monsanto, Govt. of India CICR, JK, Nath, Metahelix); in addition to non-bt cotton seed varieties.

The majority of cotton seed is produced by Indian seed companies, and Monsanto’s share in the cotton seed is a mere 5-6%.

Again, there is a genuine issue about the disappearance of seeds and threatened bio-diversity. As a massive agricultural company, what are you doing to protect bio-diversity and preserve native seeds in the markets you penetrate?
As mentioned earlier, India is the world’s most competitive market for both, cotton seed, and Bt cotton technology. The choice of Indian cotton hybrid varieties available to farmers is more than what was available prior to the launch of seeds with insect-protection Bt cotton technology in India. Five million cotton farmers choose from over 300 hybrid seed varieties from over 30 competing seed companies with six bt cotton technologies (Mahyco-Monsanto, Govt. of India CICR, JK, Nath, Metahelix); in addition to non-bt cotton seed varieties.

With regards bio-diversity, plant biotechnology is a powerful tool that helps farmers provide food, feed, fiber, and fuel to a growing global population, all while reducing agriculture’s footprint on the environment. In 2006, studies estimated that farmers growing pest-resistant crops used less chemical sprays – reducing 1.2 billion kg in carbon dioxide, equivalent to taking 500,000 cars off the road.

Current biotech crops have equal or less impact on biodiversity compared with conventional crops. Biotech crops have contributed to the development of conservation farming, which can significantly reduce erosion and restore soil quality, and conserve topsoil and moisture content, which in turn helps preserve biodiversity.

Many scientists and independent studies indicate that biotechnology has similar goals of sustainability as organic production – less pesticide use, less inputs – water, fertilizer, etc. Biotech crops have helped farmers increase their productivity while protecting biodiversity by increasing yield per acre. This has helped preserve forests and other wildlife habitats from encroachment.

Finally, what prompted you to switch from the agri-chemical business in the 70s to life sciences? Did you already know that pesticides and chemical fertilisers was a short-lived and harmful option?
Monsanto has been in existence since 1901 and has constantly evolved to meet the crucial challenges of the day. Over the years, based on our capability, knowledge, expertise and competitive advantage, we choose to focus on two key areas – seeds and (biotech) traits, and agricultural productivity.

Today, as the world’s largest investor in agriculture research, we invest Rs. 5,000 crores / US$ 1 billion annually in breeding and biotechnology to discover and deliver innovative, high-yielding technologies that help farmers increase ag productivity and succeed.

Our business is defined by our seeds-and-traits strategy, so we’re constantly looking at new ways to maximize the potential of seed for farmers – both its yield and the technology used to protect that yield. Our work provides farmers with novel ways to get more out of each seed. Farmers use our seed-based products to help them protect their harvest from weeds and insects, and produce healthier, more abundant foods, more nutritious animal feeds, better quality fiber and renewable fuels.

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