Biotech's Black Market

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

By Douglas McGray
September/October, 2002 Issue Mother Jones

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

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, prerelease 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.

Home | News | Organics | GE Food | Health | Environment | Food Safety | Fair Trade | Peace | Farm Issues | Politics
Español | Campaigns | Buying Guide | Press | Search | Donate | About Us | Contact Us

Organic Consumers Association - 6771 South Silver Hill Drive, Finland MN 55603
E-mail: Staff · Activist or Media Inquiries: 218-226-4164 · Fax: 218-353-7652
Please support our work. Send a tax-deductible donation to the OCA

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc. It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.