While the Supreme Court validated Monsanto’s patent for genetically modified (Bt) cotton seed, in a landmark judgment on Tuesday, leading biotech companies say the way is still not clear for them to introduce new technologies.
For one, the case is not fully over for Monsanto. A spokesperson of Bayer, which now owns Monsanto, notes: “The Supreme Court (SC) restored the order of the single-judge bench of the Delhi high court which, prima facie, validates our patent (but) has sent it back for full trial by evidence, considering the complexities involved. We feel confident about defending any challenge to our patent by presenting solid scientific evidence and seek adjudication by the trial court on the issue of infringement of the patent by the disputing seed companies.”
The value of the ruling is the new surety that whatever research is being done or will be done will be patentable. Biotechnology companies had put on hold new patents and technologies in the agricultural sector in the two years since the controversy began. Shivendra Bajaj, executive director, Alliance for Agri Innovation (a body of biotech and agri research firms), says: “The SC has recognised that products of biotechnological processes such as man-made DNA constructs are patentable in India. We believe this will bring certainty in the policy environment. Intellectual Property Rights, whether global or Indian, need protection.”
However, says Bajaj, “several other challenges in the area remain”. For instance, two years ago, the central government capped royalty payment to Monsanto and also asked it to give licenses to more seed companies for using Bt cotton. After that, Monsanto said it was holding back introduction of the Bollguard-2 RRF and further Bt cotton varieties, introduced globally.
“Regulatory interference like capping of royalties or unpredictability of regulatory policies continue to be a major hurdle,” said an industry observer, who declined to be identified.
Bayer’s Submergence and Bacterial Leaf Blight-tolerant hybrid rice seed, Arize, which can withstand flooding for two weeks in the vegetative stages has been launched in Bangladesh but not in India. There are examples from other multinational companies.
Other challenges remain for the Indian market. For such seeds, field trials and state government no-objection certificates are a big hurdle.
For example, the moratorium on testing of Bt brinjal will complete nine years next month; there is no clarity yet on further field trials and permission. For genetically modified mustard, the government has asked companies for more research results but state permissions for doing so are still awaited.