Commodity Analysis

Crisis in the cotton field

Rajalakshmi Nirmal | Updated on June 16, 2019 Published on June 16, 2019

Cracking down on spurious seed sellers is fine, but more important is finding a way to weed out farmers’ problems

There is a problem brewing in the domestic cotton sector. Farmers across India in the key cotton-growing belts, including Maharashtra, are planting HT (herbicide-tolerant) cotton seeds, despite it being illegal and entailing criminal punishment with a heavy fine.

For over several years now, cotton farmers across the country have been wanting better quality seeds that are resistant to pests, but the powers that be have turned a deaf ear. Result: a crisis.

Cotton production is dropping every year. From 35.9 million bales (of 170 kg each) in 2013-14, production fell to 32.8 million bales in 2017-18 and is expected at 27.5 million bales for 2018-19, the lowest at least in the past eight years. The yield has dropped from 510 kg/hectare to about 448 kg/hectare in the period between 2013-14 and 2017-18.

Farmers want to benefit from the hike in MSP (minimum support price) for cotton announced by the government in recent years, but are unwilling to take the risk with the regular Bt cotton seeds; so, they are sowing the HT seeds illegally.

Now, who is going to bell the cat?

The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee’s (GEAC) lax attitude is what is responsible for the current situation of farmers. Between 2013 and 2016, when Mahyco Monsanto’s application for permission to sell BG II RRF (HT cotton variety) was with the panel, it could have acted expeditiously. Now, it’s too late. Mahyco withdrew its application for the HT seed variety from GEAC in 2016 and has not approached it again. Unless the company goes back to GEAC, HT seeds’ commercial sales in the country is not possible.

 

BG II: What went wrong

In 2002, Mahyco Monsanto (the Indian arm of global seed major Monsanto) got approval to sell its Bt cotton (a genetically modified pest-resistant variety) that used Bollgard (BG I) technology, commercially in India. Then, in 2006 with additional traits, it released Bollgard II (BG II) technology.

Farmers reaped the benefits of GM seeds — a sharp jump in yield and lower usage of pesticide.

However, by 2015, Mahyco Monsanto’s BG II technology began losing its effectiveness. Certain kinds of pink bollworm showed a high level of tolerance to the Cry2Ab protein — a key component of BG II. Also, the cotton crop in the country was infested by weeds on a large scale. Farmers can spray herbicides to clear the weeds, but the chemical in the herbicide can cause significant damage to the cotton crop. Farmers do not prefer manual weeding, as it is time-consuming and expensive. Thus, they wanted herbicide-tolerant cotton seeds.

In 2013 itself, Mahyco Monsanto sought permission from the GEAC for release of its HT seeds (BG II RRF) — which will also be resistant to bollworms, but later withdrew it as the business environment for GM seeds turned uncertain in India with several sub-licensee seed companies refusing to pay trait fee on BG II technology to Mahyco.

So, till date, BG II RRF technology has not been approved for commercial sale in India. But over the last many years, HT seeds are being sold in the market and farmers across the country have been using it. In the 2017 kharifseason, about 35 lakh packets of illegal HT cotton hybrids were used by Indian farmers, as per reports by South Asia Biotechnology Centre, New Delhi, a not-for-profit scientific organisation.

One development to take note of is that, this January, the Supreme Court gave a verdict in favour of Mahyco Monsanto and held valid its patent on BG II technology and the right to collect trait fee from the sub-licensee seed companies.

Risks for farmers

Videos of farmers in Maharashtra sowing HT seeds are going viral in social media. These farmers are being supported by activists groups. Neither the farmers nor the activists groups seem to understand the implications of sowing these HT seeds bought from spurious seed companies in the market.

One, there is no guarantee that the seeds are HT and will resist bollworm attack. And, if they fail, there is no legal recourse to the farmer. Further, when using any biotech crop, proper crop management practices need to be undertaken. It was the failure to do so that saw BG II technology fail early in the Indian market, and now, the same risk applies to HT seeds, too. If farmers start spraying higher dosage of herbicide than is generally allowed in the case of HT seeds or do not resort to non-Bt refuge planting around the HT crops, the HT crops will also fail. Scientists warn of a super weed developing and rendering HT technology useless in India.

Solution

While the government is seen showing interest in curbing the illegal use of HT seeds and cracking down on those selling them to farmers, it does not seem to be paying attention to the problems of the farmers. If the Indian Agriculture Universities or the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) have a solution to the HT/Bt mess now, through a domestically developed variety, why be silent? It is close to two decades since the first GM cotton crop was introduced in India, where is the country’s R&D heading on the GM front, ask observers.

At the least, the government should push States to conduct more awareness programmes on saving the Bt cotton crops from pink bollworm and controlling weed infestation.

Cotton farmers have to be advised to go for shorter duration cotton crops, resort to crop rotation to reduce pest susceptibility and use only seeds from registered companies where trait purity is guaranteed, say experts. An integrated pest management system should be taught to farmers, they add.

It is about time the government finds a solution to the problems of the seven million-plus cotton farmers.

Published on June 16, 2019

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