Mahyco Monsanto has been fighting a legal battle with Indian seed companies over royalty for Bollgard II (BGII) technology used in cotton seeds for the last few years.

The Supreme Court recently refused to stay the Delhi High Court’s order revoking the patent of Monsanto on BG II. The next hearing is set for July. The judgment in this case will decide the future of biotechnology and GM crops in India.

With seed companies in a tussle with Monsanto over royalty for BG II on the one hand, cotton farmers, on the other hand, are now facing a challenge from weed infestation. Desperate to save crops, farmers are now using the illegal HT (herbicide tolerant) cotton seeds in the market, originally developed by Monsanto.

Given the serious implications of use of an unapproved technology, it is time the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) acts. Working under the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, the GEAC plays the role of watchdog in such cases.

What ails farmers?

Cotton being a long duration crop and relatively slow-growing, is subject to threat from weeds. Weed infestation can cause up to 40-80 per cent reduction in crop yield. Farmers can spray herbicides to clear weeds, but the chemical in the herbicide causes significant damage to the cotton crop. Manual weeding is time-consuming and expensive. So, farmers prefer to use HT cotton seeds. In 2013, Mahyco Monsanto sought permission from the GEAC for release of its HT seeds — BG II RRF — which is resistant to bollworm and herbicides, but later withdrew it as the business environment for GM seeds turned uncertain in India. So, BG II RRF technology is not approved for commercial sale in India.

However, illegal HT cotton seeds are being sold in the market and many farmers across the country are using it. While the cost of the legal BG II cotton seeds itself is only ₹740 a packet, the illegal variety is sold for ₹1,200-1,500 a packet. South Asia Biotechnology Centre, New Delhi, a not-for-profit scientific organisation, in its letter to the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee last year, said that about 35 lakh packets of illegal HT cotton hybrids were used by Indian farmers in the kharif 2017 season.

Unapproved technology

Aside from the fact that farmers have no legal recourse in the case of sub-standard pirated seeds and are often left in the lurch by fly-by-night operators, the other risk from letting an unapproved technology perpetrate is that it will eventually result in the breakdown of the technology itself. Benefits from biotech crops can sustain only when the recommended crop management measures are practised.

But now, as the seeds are being sourced illegally, neither the government nor Monsanto is telling farmers about the required dosage of herbicide to be sprayed or the need for non-Bt refuge planting (planting an area of non-Bt crops around an area of Bt crops).

Farmers now spray herbicides twice/thrice or as many times they want. This poses the risk of cotton plants falling prey to herbicides very fast. A super weed may even develop and render HT technology useless, warn scientists.

Farmer first

To check infiltration of HT seeds into the market illegally, the Andhra Pradesh Government, in February, banned the use of glyphosate — a chemical that goes into making herbicides. While the intention is to check use of HT seeds by farmers, the success of the move is doubtful as the chemical is freely available in neighbouring States.

The State and the Centre need to nip the problem in the bud by clamping down the sources of these illegal seeds. It appears that South Asia Biotechnology Centre has identified districts in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat where HT seeds are made illegally, and submitted a report to GEAC.

Under the Environment Protection Act 1986, GEAC can take criminal action against those importing/manufacturing/selling genetically modified seeds without its approval. But, till date, it hasn’t initiated action or set up an investigation against any illegal seed operator.

States have also been lax. Though the State government too can crackdown on companies that sell seeds illegally with the power conferred on it by the Seeds Act, none of the states such as Andhra Pradesh, Telangana or Gujarat — where there is large-scale sale of illegal HT seeds — has taken strong action.

The Andhra Pradesh Government has issued show-cause notice to two companies for selling the unapproved HT variety seeds, but it didn’t result in a major ramification for the two companies.

State governments, though, do not have the power to initiate a criminal action, can revoke the licence of the company to sell seeds in the state.

It is time the GEAC and the state authorities should stand for the interests offarmers.

Between 2013 and 2016, when Mahyco Monsanto’s application for permission to sell BG II RRF commercially was with GEAC, it could have acted quickly to give approval. It is that delay for which farmers are paying a price now.

The policy hurdles for biotechnology research and innovation in the country should also be cleared soon. If Indian cotton farmers are denied new technologies, they may lose competitiveness in the global market.