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The Strange Case of India’s ‘First’ Public-Sector Bt Cotton Variety

The Strange Case of India’s ‘First’ Public-Sector Bt Cotton Variety

Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, Bt cotton, GM mustard, Bt brinjal, HTBt cotton, GM crops, genetically modified organisms, GM satyagraha, Jairam Ramesh, Deepak Pental, Monsanto,

Representative image. Photo: Amit Dave/Reuters

  • In 2012, Manjula Maralappanavar at the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, developed what could have been India’s first public-sector Bt cotton variety.
  • In 2014, just as Maralappanavar’s research on cotton was being recognised, the university suddenly transferred her to the safflower unit to a facility about 60 km away.
  • Four years later, the university allowed her to resume her work on transgenic cotton, but in this time had already dismantled her lab and withheld her research materials.
  • In January 2022, the National Institute of Plant Biotechnology sequenced the seed she had developed and found the presence of a gene construct not approved for use in India.
  • The institute and other officials and haven’t been able to say where the construct came from or why the institute’s report also says the seed also contains patentable material.
  • The institute has nonetheless prevented Maralappanavar from continuing her work, and she told The Wire Science that her future now looks bleak.

It is a sad irony that a country in which only 16.6% of all scientists are women also places many obstacles in their path – including dismissing years of challenging work on specious charges.

The year 2012 was a good one for Manjula Maralappanavar (53), a crop-breeder at the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad (UASD), Karnataka. After a decade of research, her dedication had paid off and she had developed a new transgenic cotton variety called ‘event no. 78’.

According to experts, “An ‘event’ is defined as a specific set of genes that have been placed in specific plant background material.”

In simple terms, she had modified an Indian-variety cotton plant called RAH 100 by transferring a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (thus the prefix ‘Bt’). The result was that the modified plant could be used to produce varieties of Bt cotton. As such, event no. 78 could have been India’s first public-sector Bt cotton variety. But it wasn’t to be.

B. thuringiensis produces an insecticidal toxin in one stage of its lifecycle. Transferring the genes responsible for this action to a plant allows the plant to produce the same toxin as well, and thus defend against certain insects without requiring synthetic insecticides.

Bt toxin crystals from a strain of Bacillus thuringiensis. Image: Jim Buckman and P.R. Johnston, public domain

In 2014, just as Maralappanavar’s research on cotton was being recognised, the UASD suddenly transferred her to the safflower unit in Annigeri, about 60 km away from the university campus. The institution’s authorities said their decision was motivated only by the university’s needs – but to Maralappanavar, there seemed to be more to it than met the eye. There was also a report in the national press about how the university was allegedly trying to sabotage its own researcher.

UASD did not allow Maralappanavar to continue her work on cotton even as she was harassed by the institute’s top brass, she said. In 2014, she finally filed a complaint with the Karnataka state women’s commission against B.M. Khadi, then director of research, and D.P. Biradar, then vice-chancellor, both of UASD. After that, the university allowed her to work for one day every week on cotton, but at the Institute of Agri-Biotechnology in UASD’s biotechnology instead of in her office.[footnote]This institute is not to be confused with the ICAR-IABT in Ranchi.[/footnote]

It got worse. To Maralappanavar’s horror, the laboratory she had set up for her work had been dismantled. When the university had transferred her, she had been asked to hand over research materials to another scientist. Maralappanavar had refused because, she said, the cotton seeds were patentable. This scientist – H.M. Vamadevaiah – along with Khadi had been investigated by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) after they had claimed to have developed a new Bt cotton variety called BNBt, when tests revealed it was really the Monsanto gene MON 51.

Finally, after much effort and many petitions, UASD allowed Maralappanavar to return to her cotton research station in 2018.

Despite the tribulations Maralappanavar faced between 2014 and 2017, she persisted in her efforts to transfer the seeds of event no. 78 to the ICAR with a view to protect the results for the national cotton-breeding programme. After several follow-ups, an agreement materialised between the Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR), the National Institute for Plant Biotechnology (NIPB), the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) and the UASD on August 18, 2017.

Manjula Maralappanavar (right) handing over the seeds to CICR acting-head Vijay Waghmare (centre) in January 2018. Photo: Special arrangement

As part of the agreement, UASD transferred the seeds of event No. 78 to CICR, which is in Nagpur, on January 1, 2018. The CICR was to conduct biosafety research trials – but it didn’t. So Maralapannavar had little choice but to use the funding she had from the UASD and initiate the level 1 trial in 2019.

In January 2022, the NIPB sequenced the genome of event No. 78, and allegedly found in the subsequent computational analysis the genetic presence of a Chinese event that had not been approved for use in India. But the NIPB also wrote in its report that the event no. 78 was also present.

The presence of a Chinese event was a serious allegation and threatened Maralappanavar’s career, but it was also surprising. (This is a short list of transgenic crop events approved in India.)

In an online meeting on January 17, 2022 (an audio recording of which The Wire Science has accessed), NIPB scientist Rohini Sreevathsa called the presence of the alleged coexistence of event no. 78 a “silver lining”. Sreevathsa also said that the seed had been evaluated in 2019 itself and that evidence of the presence of the Chinese gene construct had been communicated to ICAR.

Why NIPB hadn’t communicated as much to Maralappanavar as well, before 2022, remains a mystery.

In the same January 17 meeting, NIPB director A.K. Shashany can be heard directing CICR (orally) to not conduct any more research on event no. 78, due to the presence of the Chinese event.

Maralappanavar suspects foul play – even as she is unable to understand how an unapproved Chinese gene could have made its way into the seed she developed. In her compliance report to ICAR, dated April 20, 2022, she had written that she had not procured the Chinese event.

“The event [no. 78] had been developed with all the due permissions from regulatory bodies, as per their guidelines of collaborating with the CICR, Nagpur, and NIPB, New Delhi, under the memorandum of agreement during 2017,” she told The Wire Science.

She also said she had obtained the gene construct from ICGEB, after permission from the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation, and that the Department of Biotechnology had funded her work at UASD from 2005 to 2008.

Maralappanavar also said that the NIPB report had not considered the complete results and that its conclusion ignored the existence/development of event no. 78 – instead of supporting the facts and encouraging the development of a public-sector transgenic event. She added that the NIPB report also clearly referred to the presence of event no. 78 but the authorities were ignoring that.

After the NIPB sent out its report to the concerned institutions in January, R.K. Singh from ICAR emailed her on April 4 and UASD thus: “As per conclusion made by director, ICAR-NIPB in the report, the UASD 78 event is showing 100% similarity with Chinese event.” ICAR has called another meeting, scheduled to happen a week from today (June 16) to finalise the findings of the NIPB report.

Maralappanavar circled back to the NIPB’s admission that even if its analysis had found the presence of a Chinese event, her own event was also present. She said that researchers could ‘purify’ it with further research and isolate it. According to her, event no. 78 had good botanical characteristics and a higher Bt toxin expression compared to Monsanto’s Bollgard 2 event. She also said that various tests had confirmed the efficacy of the event.

The ICAR-NIPB building in New Delhi. Photo: ICAR-NIPB/Facebook

But for her to continue her work, she will need continuous support and funding from ICAR as well as UASD. More importantly, she will also need the NIPB to revoke its decision that she shouldn’t continue her research on this front. So now, she said, her prospects look bleak. She repeated that she had adhered to all the proper protocols and procedures in her research.

Two requests asking NIPB director Shashany to respond went unanswered. The then acting-director of CICR, Vijay N. Waghmare, said he couldn’t talk about the event since it was “unapproved”. UASD M.D. Chetti didn’t respond to WhatsApp messages – nor did P.L. Patil, UASD’s director of research.

R.K. Singh, the assistant director-general (commercial crops) at the Crop Science Division, ICAR, said he was on leave and will be back next week. This report will be updated as and when any of them responds.

This was not the first setback for Maralappanavar in her long career as a cotton scientist. She is also known for her work on brown cotton. But in spite of having published several papers and authored other research articles, and in spite of having received UASD’s support in the past, the university also took away her research materials when it transferred her to the safflower unit in 2014, and didn’t give them back when she rejoined cotton research in 2018.

Maralappanavar has suffered considerable mental stress through this ordeal, and it still hasn’t ended. Women scientists in India have a tough time throughout the pipeline due to various barriers, including lack of family support, misogyny at the workplace and systemic biases against female researchers in promotions and academic publishing.

The resulting stress is exacerbated when women also work on vitiated topics like genetic modification – where what little support is available is complemented by political considerations, commercial interests and, as in Maralappanavar’s case, Kafkaesque allegations.

Meena Menon is an independent journalist.

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