Cotton controversy: Centre needs a clear view on GM crops

| Updated on July 23, 2020

Ideally, India should have a credible regulator — the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill has been on the backburner since 2013 — to assess issues like the illegal trade of herbicide-tolerant Bt seeds

It’s not difficult to discern why India’s cotton growers are keen to buy ‘illegal’ herbicide-tolerant Bt cotton seed varieties at black market rates, much to the dismay of the organised seed industry and the anti-GM groups who fear its environmental effects. The moratorium imposed in 2009 on approval of all GM crops remains, while the ground realities with respect to cotton cultivation have undergone a significant change. The demand for the unapproved HTBT cotton seeds, which arrived on the scene about four years back, has arisen in a context of the dominant Bt strain in India, BG-II (which was introduced in 2006 and accounts for most of India’s cotton acreage) falling prey to pink bollworm pest attacks in recent years. Cotton farmers have been faced with falling yields (from 500 kg/ha in 2017-18 to 443 kg/ha in 2018-19 and 486 kg/ha in 2019-20), while dealing with constant or rising costs. The HTBT cotton plant is resistant to the usage of glyphosate-based weedicides, a popular labour-saving product, which too has been allowed for use in very restricted conditions in India for its alleged carcinogenic effects. According to the organised seed industry, illegal trade in HTBT seeds is in the region of ₹300 crore, with 50 lakh packets of 450 g each in circulation. They fear it has been used over 15-20 per cent of cotton area. This is a straightforward case of market forces rising to meet a genuine demand. However, the implications of unregulated seed trade are indeed serious, as farmers in search of high yields may suffer a dead loss if the expensive seeds (selling at over the maximum rates fixed by the Centre) are spurious. Bonafide seed distributors and producers suffer as well, while farmers’ groups have stepped up protests seeking HTBT approval, allowing for reduced costs and quality control. The Centre must take a clear position on the HTBT issue.

In perhaps an implicit effort to curb the use of HTBT seeds, the Centre has said that glyphosate-based weedicides must be applied in the presence of a pest control operator. However, the sowing season is close to completion. Meanwhile, the use of glyphosate in India has increased since 2016-17. Be that as it may, the larger issue of taking a clear position on GM-based seed technology cannot be shelved. Ideally, India should have a credible regulator — the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill has been on the backburner since 2013 — to assess these issues on a case-by-case basis, involving all stakeholders. India’s initiatives on this count should be driven by public-funded research.

The development of indigenous varieties and strains must be given more emphasis, given our gene pool in seeds. A pragmatic rather than knee-jerk response to GM is long overdue, with a distinction being made between food and non-food crops.

Published on July 23, 2020

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