The Telangana Government has imposed a total ban on glyphosate, a controversial herbicide that is used in cotton farms to kill weeds, as the chemical’s rampant use, particularly in cotton, is “polluting soil and causing health hazards to human beings”.

The State Government has cautioned dealers, retailers and manufacturers that they would be punished under the Insecticides Act 1968 for any violation of the ban.

“We have decided to ban it completely in the State. Earlier, there used to be some exclusions but we found that that exclusion was used an excuse for its spread. So, we have decided to ban it completely,” B Janardhan Reddy, Principal Secretary (Agriculture, Govt of Telangana), told Business Line .

“It is being used illegally in cotton crop. We have decided to put an end to this practice,” he said.

Complete HTBt ban

The ban comes in the wake of largescale use of herbicide tolerant Bt (HTBt) cotton in the State. Reports suggest that about 8-10 lakh acres are under herbicide tolerant cotton that has not got the permission for commercial use. The ban is seen as a move to indirectly stop cultivation of HTBt cotton.

HTBt cotton has not been approved by the Genetic Appraisal Engineering Committee (GAEC) as mandated by the Union Government.

This is because Monsanto, now taken over by Bayer, withdrew its application for the approval of the variety in protest against a government move to force it to share its technology with local seed manufacturers. In view of an uncertain regulatory and business environment, Monsanto withdrew its application in 2016.

Despite both plant varieties being unapproved, which means their planting is illegal, farmers continue to cultivate the crop.

Saves cultivation cost

HTBt cotton helps growers save cultivation costs. Seeds of HTBt cotton are sold at ₹1,500 for a 450 gm packet, though they are considered illegal. This is higher than the ceiling of ₹740 per packet fixed for sale of Bollgard cotton II but farmers go for the costlier option in view of the savings he reportedly makes.

A cotton grower spends ₹23,500 on an acre of irrigated land and ₹15,400 on rain-fed land to grow genetically-modified cotton. Of this, 25 per cent of the cost on irrigated farms and 20 per cent of the cost on rain-fed lands goes towards removing weeds, which grow along with the cotton plant and affects its growth.

The HTBt cotton will help growers avoid expenditure on removing weeds as spraying of glyphosate will help kill the weeds even as the plant remains unaffected.

“Glyphosate and its residues in food and water are considered as one of the major factors for chronic kidney disease (CKD) which is becoming prevalent in Sri Lanka. This has led to the banning all agrochemical use.and go organic,” GV Ramanjaneyulu, Chief Executive Officer of Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), told Business Line .

Blame on government

He blamed the Government officials for extensive cultivation of HTBt cotton in the State. “Sale of nearly 20 lakh packets annually in a State cannot happen without the support of officials and politicians,” he said.

He hoped that the restrictions imposed by the Government on glyphosate would help curb the cultivation of illegal cotton.

In Maharashtra, where cotton is cultivated in 29 per cent of the total land under Kharif cultivation, farmers planted the illegal variety on 25-35 per cent of the area this crop year (July 2020-June 2021). A considerable number of farmers in Gujarat, Telangana and Andhra, too, grew HTBt cotton this season.

Farmers began planting HTBt cotton in 2019 and it gained momentum last year. This year, at least 50 per cent of the area under cotton could be under the illegal variety.

In India, the only genetically-modified (GM) crop approved for cultivation is cotton. Since 2006, no new GM variety, including cotton, has been approved by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the nodal agency to clear GM crops in the country.

Farmers have been cultivating HTBt crop despite the penal provisions that carrying, storing, selling or sowing of unauthorised GM crops will result in ₹1-lakh fine and five years’ imprisonment.

Apart from Telangana, Kerala is another State where use of glyphosate is banned. The illegal seed trade has dented the cotton seed business by 10-15 per cent.