Still reeling from the Covid-19 crisis, the Indian seed sector is being challenged by another deadly contamination: from Herbicide Tolerant (HT) Bt cotton. Reports from Maharashtra confirm that motivated agents are duping farmers and trying to sabotage the legal cottonseed business by channelling an illegal ₹300-crore trade.

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HT cotton is a third-generation GMO developed by Monsanto/Bayer, with a Round-Up (Glyphosate-based herbicides) resistant trait. Today, with 50 lakh (of 450 gm each) packets in circulation, it is believed that 10-15 per cent of cotton area has been contaminated with illegal seeds.

The background

When did all this begin? In 2008, when trait developer Monsanto (now Bayer), through its Indian subsidiary Mahyco, imported GM-Bollgord 2 cotton seeds with HT trait (known as event MON 88913) called Round-up Ready Flex (RRF).

The GEAC gave Mahyco approvals to conduct large-scale field trials in Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Within three months of the approvals, GEAC confirmed that the HT trait had escaped into the environment. Reports that illegal HT cottonseeds were being sold under the name of WeedGard in Gujarat were also confirmed.

Fast forward to 2020. This spread aims to circumvent Indian laws — GEAC, Biodiversity laws — once again; leaving the ₹25,000-crore legal cottonseed businesses vulnerable.

HT cottonseeds are being sold by illegal operators without any seed licence or marketing permission for their hybrids from the State Agriculture Departments. The result: legal businesses suffer as their seed lots are contaminated with HT seeds, and they are penalised, despite being victims. But this is not the first time such modus operandi has been used in India.

In 1996, before the legal release of Bt cotton in India, Navbharat seed lots in Gujarat were found to be contaminated with Bt cotton. Fly-by-night operators then toospread Bt seeds among the hybrid population, which resulted in a major biodiversity and legal fiasco, as Indian biosafety experts and government were not given a chance to independently scrutinise the technology.

Today, the same method is being used to illegally introduce HT cotton in India. The trait provider had withdrawn its application a few years ago, and despite a Supreme Court technical committee recommending a moratorium on HT crops, a few black marketers and motivated agents are challenging the sovereignty of our laws and posing a threat to India’s biodiversity.

Indian laws ‘paramount’

Technology and bio-safety questions aside, Indian laws are paramount, and any transgression sets a very bad precedent.

A few seed lots of the organised players are found to be contaminated with the HT cotton trait in Andhra Pradesh, too, over the past 2-3 years.

In theory, once farmers plant HTBT seeds, they can spray Round-up (herbicide) on their fields; as a result, only the tolerant cotton will survive, and all other plants will die out.

If a contaminated lot with 5-10 per cent or 50 per cent of HT seeds, unknown to the seller, lands up in their cottonseed packets, can the company advocate the use of glyphosate? And even if the farmer detects it, will he spray the herbicide knowing that half or 90 per cent of the crop will die? It’s unlikely. It is therefore easy to tell if a seed company is a victim of contamination or has developed HT cotton seed deliberately to gain the benefit of the HT trait.

The NSAI has offered State Governments the option to sample every seed lot before the seeds are sold in the market so as to detect and remove any lots that are contaminated.

The NSAI has also brought these to the notice of the DAC& FW several times. Yet, illegal operators continue to proliferate, and contamination has reached a tipping point, endangering seed companies, especially in Andhra Pradesh.

The government should uphold the rule of law and issue clarification to distinguish between genuine players (who are the victims of contamination) and the illegal players, who are spreading the HT cotton trait by maintaining HT gene presence.

If the government acts with resolve, the illegal trade in HT cottonseeds can be uprooted. Until then, any seed lots found with contamination must be seized and destroyed.

India should, of course, embrace new technologies, but not if it is channelled through illegal means.

The writer is Director – Policy and Outreach, National Seed Association of India. Views are personal