An article titled “ HTBT issue: We should embrace seed technology but not through illegal means ” appeared in The Hindu Business Line on July 24. It is necessary to set some of the facts straight and address the critical issue of illegal cultivation of HT Bt cotton.

Bt1 Cotton was approved in 2002, while Bt2 was approved in 2006. An Indian company, Mahyco, brought it to India, in collaboration with Monsanto. Over the past 18 years, Bt Cotton technology has covered over 95 per cent of the country’s cotton. About 70 lakh cotton farmers derived phenomenal benefits, as did the country.

Around 2007, several State governments placed a cap on the Maximum Retail Price of Bt Cotton seeds. In 2016, the Ministry of Agriculture sounded the death knell by fixing the prices of Bt cotton seeds at Rs 800 per packet, including a payment of Rs 49 to the technology provider, which over the past five years has been reduced to “zero”. The current MRP is Rs 730.

Cotton farmers faced multiple challenges with weed management. In order to offer the next-generation traits to help them overcome these challenges, Mahyco started developing HT Cotton, which was tolerant to the weedicide glyphosate. Challenges with labour availability impacted weeding operations in cotton fields. HT technology was, therefore, seen as a blessing for cotton farmers. Accordingly, a regulatory application for approval was moved for HT Cotton (RR Flex) in 2013 by Mahyco. However, due to the unfavourable policy and regulatory environment, which included delays in the regulatory process and price controls, Mahyco withdrew its regulatory application in 2016.

The blight of illegal seeds

Illegal planting of HT Cotton was reported first around 2015. What started on a small acreage has spread significantly over the years. Farmers are reported to be paying more than Rs 1,200 per packet of the illegal HTBt Cotton seed, thus demonstrating the need for it and their readiness to pay a price for it. The supply and planting of illegal HT Cotton cannot be condoned or justified under any circumstances.

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The size of the cotton seed industry is Rs 2,500-3,000 crore, and not Rs 25,000 crore. as claimed in the article. Of this, about Rs 400 crore worth illegal seeds have displaced the business of good cotton seed companies. The government lost tax revenue. Farmers do not get quality seed and after-sales service. Good cotton seed companies, the government and the GEAC have all been concerned about the proliferation of illegal HT Bt cotton.

The Field Inspection and Scientific Evaluation Committee (FISEC) formed by the Prime Minister’s Office to investigate this conducted a detailed enquiry and tested numerous hybrids of HT Bt Cotton being sold illegally. The FISEC submitted its report to the PMO in 2018 and it blew the lid off a thriving illegal cotton business. The FISEC panel collected over 13,000 leaf and seed samples and found prevalence of unapproved HT cotton in over 15 per cent of the acreage in the key cotton-growing States of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra and Gujarat.

The FISEC is reported to have said that hybrids developed by the seed company Mahyco, which were in regulatory approval, were not found in any field samples “indicating there has been no deliberate release" by the company into the market. The report also added that “the 14 illegal hybrids collected from the fields could be grouped into two major genetic groups, indicating very narrow genetic base reflecting organized illegal breeding activity by a couple of companies”.

Big operators at work

An estimated 50-60 lakh packets of illegal HT Bt Cotton are being supplied to farmers by unscrupulous elements. This would require at least 20,000 acres of cotton seed production area, not something that can be organised by small seed companies.

In 2018, the State governments of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana conducted raids at facilities owned by some leading cotton seed companies and recovered significant quantities of illegal unapproved HT cotton seeds. Cases were filed against these companies.

It is not difficult for illegal operators to access the HT gene. It could have been brought easily from outside the country by smuggling a few seeds clandestinely. There is, therefore, no doubt that some “influential” seed companies illegally obtained the technology through unscrupulous methods. These companies have ensured that the unapproved seeds percolated into the market and needy farmers bought and cultivated the same, putting themselves under tremendous risk.

Same old tricks

The article mentioned above makes the fallacious argument that the seeds of ‘respectable’ companies were contaminated due to the presence of the trait in the production fields. This is an old trick that is being practised once again by some seed companies: introduce the seeds with the latest technologies in a discreet manner and then claim that the unapproved event found its way into their seeds due to contamination through wind or other similar means. In the past, such claims were trashed by the regulator as well. It is the legal responsibility of each company to test their seed for adventitious presence of unapproved GM traits. They cannot make any excuse for not ensuring that there is no unapproved GM trait in their seed.

If companies continue to circumvent the regulatory process and show scant respect for the law, technology flow into the country may stop. The government needs to crack down without any sympathy on some of these companies that have time and again taken the lead in spreading illegal seeds. Perhaps all seed lots have to be tested by the government before companies sell them. Production fields of illegal HT seeds should be located and ploughed down in this kharif season under government supervision.

What is needed today is for the government to call upon the technology provider and arrive at a policy and licensing framework that encourages introduction of HT Cotton, followed by a swift regulatory process for evaluating the data and approving the technology. This will benefit Indian cotton, seed industry and above all the cotton farmer. Any further delay will only cause irreparable damage to the carefully built cotton ecosystem.

The author is Director General, Federation of Seed Industry of India