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Gene Stacked Bollgard II Cotton in India
Prof. C Kameswara Rao
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education,
Bangalore, India
krao@vsnl.com, www.fbae.org, www.fbaeblog.org


Bollgard I, the predominantly cultivated pest tolerant cotton, contains only one gene, the Cry 1Ac, from Bacillus thuringiensis.   Bollgard II contains the Cry 2 Ab gene, in addition to Cry 1 Ac.  The Bollgard II event developed by Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech Ltd, (MMBL) is technically designated as MON 15985. 


While Bollgard I offers protection against only the major cotton pest, the American bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera), Bollgard II provides season long control of key pests of cotton including Spodoptera and Heliothis pests. 

The major benefit of Bollgard I was a drastic reduction in the consumption of chemical pesticides and Bollgard II is expected to be even better in this regard.   In Australia, Bollgard II has reduced pesticide use by up to 80 per cent. 

In a decade of cultivation of Bollgard I in different parts of the world, there was no sign of development of resistance by the American bollworm to Cry 1 Ac protein.   The synergistic influence of two genes in Bollgard II would further delay the development of resistance by the pests to the two insecticidal proteins.


Two years of field experiments by CSIRO Plant Industry, Australia, showed that under normal full irrigation, Bollgard II cotton needed 10 per cent less water than an equivalent conventional variety and had higher yields.   Bollgard II tends to produce bolls earlier than conventional cotton because insect damage does not delay early crop growth, has a more compact growing season and so needs less water overall, for the same or higher yields.. 


In May 2006, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) approved for commercial release, Bollgard II cotton hybrids containing MON 15985, developed by several different seed companies, but only for the Central and Northern Zones.  Bollgard II cotton hybrids have completed two years of large scale open field trials under GEAC and two years of trials by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research under the testing system of the All India Coordinated Cotton Improvement Project.   Several other varieties suitable for all the three zones are expected to be approved for this year’s cotton season. 

The GEAC’s approval of Bollgard II for commercial cultivation was based on the recommendation of the Review Committee for Genetic Manipulation on the efficacy and safety of the two stacked genes and that of the Director, Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur, that the event MON 15985 is as safe as non-transgenic cotton without any appreciable environmental risks. 


Some of the significant points that emerged from the biosecurity tests in India are:

  1. outcrossing may occur only up to a maximum distance of 15 m;
  2. there were no significant difference in germination, aggressiveness or weediness between Bollgard II and its non-Bt counterpart;
  3. Bollgard II hybrids are not toxic to non-target insects;
  4. Bt protein was not detected in soil samples indicating that Bt protein is rapidly degraded in the soil on which Bt cotton was grown; 
  5. there was no significant difference in populations of microbes and soil invertebrates like earthworms, between Bt and non-Bt soil samples;
  6. there was no difference in proteins, carbohydrates, oil, calories and ash content between seeds of Bollgard II, Bollgard I and non-Bt; 
  7. no significant differences in feed consumption, animal weight gain and general animal health between animals fed with Bollgard II cotton seed and non-Bt cotton seed;
  8. no significant differences were found between goats fed on Bollgard II and non Bt cotton seed and there were no toxic effects; and
  9. feeding experiments conducted with Bollgard II cotton seed meal on fish, chicken, cows and buffaloes indicated that Bollgard II cotton seed meal is nutritionally equivalent, wholesome and as safe as the non-Bt cotton seed meal.


These data are in full agreement with the report in Australia, made to the Gene Technology Regulator, that Bollgard II posed no greater risk than conventional or existing Bt cotton in relation to various environmental and human safety parameters.


Bollgard II was not approved for commercial cultivation in the South Zone last season.     Nevertheless, some farmers in the Warangal District have cultivated Bollgard II illegally, buying the seed in Maharashtra.

In November 2006, the Government of Andhra Pradesh (GAP) has put on hold, permission to Mahyco for selling Bollgard II cotton seed in the State.   The GAP has asked the GEAC to provide an economic viability report, in the context of MMBL’s claim that Bollgard II helps farmers to cut down inputs.
Seed of Bollgard II was sold at Rs. 1,350 per packet for one acre of sowing, in the States of Gujarat and Maharashtra.  But GAP wanted it to be sold at Rs 750, the same as for Bollgard I, irrespective of the pricing in other States.   Such dual pricing will create complications, and ignores the costs of development for the companies and the benefits that would accrue to the farmer. 

In the anxiety of not letting another season go by, MMBL has signed last week an agreement with the seed companies to sell a packet of Bollgard II seed at Rs. 1,000, in the ensuing season.   However, this is subject to the approval of the Monopolistic and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission, before which there is a pending case, filed by the GAP, against MMBL, on Bt cotton seed costs. 

When the GEAC approves Bollgard II for the South Zone and the GAP approves the seed sale price, Bollgard II will hopefully be a legal tender in Andhra Pradesh, this coming season.

A word of caution: Studies by the CSIRO Plant Industry have shown that Bollgard II had lower yields when it was moisture stressed from peak flowering to the end of flowering, when boll filling started.   So Bollgard II should not be cultivated as an exclusively rain fed crop.

February 11, 2007