India File

Cotton, a ‘seedy’ story

Vishwanath Kulkarni Rahul Wadke | Updated on May 21, 2018

Pink bollworm and after Unapproved Bt cottonseeds pose an additional risk to growers and others in the cotton chain   -  Pics: K Murali kumar; by special arrangement)

The sale of unapproved herbicide tolerant Bt cottonseed may jeopardise both the production and quality of cotton. This has also, yet again, exposed the regulatory lacunae with respect to GMOs. Vishwanath Kulkarni and Rahul Wadke report

Ask any farmer in Vidarbha about herbicide tolerant (HT) cotton and the reply one gets is that he’s heard about people growing it secretly but is not aware of who’s actually doing it. The situation appears to be no different in Telangana and Karnataka.

And just weeks ahead of the kharif planting season, the unapproved HT cottonseeds are back in circulation in States such as Maharashtra and Telangana.

What’s unfolding now is a perfect policy and governance mess. States have seemingly stepped up their vigil against the illegal seeds, amidst demand from a section of farmers that the Centre approve the HT cotton for commercial cultivation. The regulator — the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) — has not approved the sale and distribution of HT cottonseeds.

Farmers are taking to HT cotton in the belief that it brings down their costs of cultivation. By spraying herbicide — glyphosate, which kills the weeds and allows the cotton plant to grow — farmers could reduce their costs towards weeding, which forms about a third of the overall cultivation costs, as wages rise amidst shortage of labour.

By way of background, HT cotton was seen as a successor to Bollgard (BG) II, which replaced BG 1 in 2008-09.

Double whammy

But here’s the crucial issue: Experts feel the rising cultivation of the unapproved or the illegal HT cottonseeds poses a big risk to the cotton growers in India, who are already reeling under the impact of rising pink bollworm attacks. The widespread use of HT cotton could altogether reverse the production gains over the last 15 years, since the advent of Bt hybrids in 2002. The Government needs to come down heavily on the illegal trade, say analysts.

The South Asia Biotechnology Centre, the New Delhi-based non-profit that brought to light the illegal cultivation of HT cotton through its report last year, expects the area under such seeds to rise this year on higher sales. But the domestic seed industry believes that the crackdown by States against the illegal seeds would lead farmers back to BG II hybrids, which have turned susceptible to the dreaded pest pink bollworm and have already been inflicting heavy losses on farmers. It is to be noted that cotton yields have stagnated after rising dramatically in first few years when Bt seeds were introduced (see table).

Last year, SABC had revealed that the share of the illegal HT cottonseeds was around 35 lakh packets. “We expect that the area under HT cotton could rise further in the dryland regions of Maharashtra in the forthcoming season to around 1.5-2 million hectares, from around 1 million hectares last year,” says C D Mayee, President, SABC and former director, Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR).

In Telangana, where farmers had planted about a third of the 45 lakh acres under the unapproved HT cotton last year, the Government has stepped up the vigil this year. "About 10 tonnes of the unapproved seeds have been seized so far,” says K Keshavalu, Director of the Telangana State Seed and Organic Certification Authority. “There’s need for a massive awareness campaign to be taken to the farmers on the risks posed by the illegal seeds and the ill-effects of use of glyphosate,” he adds. “A ban on glyphosate could possibly address this issue, as its use is integral to HT seed technology,” explains Mayee.

Recently, the Nagpur Police along with the Maharastra Agriculture Department officers, seized around 3,400 packets of the suspected HT cottonseeds. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Bijay Kumar, Agriculture Secretary, Maharashtra. The State has been trying to break the clandestine supply chain of the HT cottonseeds.

Forked debate

There are roughly two camps at work here. One says that market forces should prevail and that if the farmers want to use these seeds, there is no reason why the government should block the free play of market forces. This argument is a throwback to the introduction of Bt cotton in Gujarat prior to its official introduction.

However, the trouble with this view is that there is acute apprehension over the quality of seeds doing the rounds, as a result of which the farmers may suffer at the hands of fly-by-night operators.

“There have been reports of extensive booking for illegal HT cottonseeds. Since BG-II technology is outdated, the farmers are left with no option but to plant such illegal seeds,” says Kishore Tiwari, farm-activist turned Chairman of the Maharashtra government’s special task force on the agrarian crisis.

“This problem has also risen due to policy paralysis and no substitute to BT cottonseeds. Due to widespread use of BT cottonseeds, the indigenous cottonseeds are not available in the market. Neither the State nor the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and the agriculture universities are serious about supplying the indigenous seed varieties to farmers. As a result, they are forced to buy illegal BT cottonseed, which has no quality assurance. Last year, illegal seeds were extensively planted and this year also the same could happen,” cautions Tiwari.

Farmers’ group Shetkari Sanghatana (Sharad Joshi faction) has been batting for the approval of the HT cottonseed technology. Its leader Raghunath Patil says his organisation has always stood for liberalisation of technology and trade for the farmers.

“The BT technology in India is limited to BG and BG-2, while in other countries it has reached to BG-7. Such technologies are useful for farmers, as they help in enhancing the productivity of their farms. But on the other hand, those who are advocating the use of Swadeshi (indigenous) seeds don’t realise that the use of such seeds leads to lower cotton production,” says Patil. Further, Patil points out that today farmers are forced to buy and plant HT cottonseed in a clandestine manner because of the restrictions imposed on these high productivity seeds.

Former Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, who was at the epicentre of the GMO debate, observes, “India must not be blindly permissive like the US or blindly in favour of prohibition like Europe but intelligently precautionary in its approach to GM.” On the regulatory impasse, he says: “ I don't understand why a biotech regulator has not been put in place when a Bill for it had been finalised in 2011 itself.”

KR Kranthi, head of technical information at International Cotton Advisory Committee, says HT cotton is not suited for the Indian farming system dominated by small landholders. It would reduce employment in the farm sector. Besides, there is a risk of the weedicide sprayed drifting to the neighbouring land holdings and affecting the crops, he adds.

Anti-GM activists claim that the issue of HT cotton was raised with the GEAC way back in 2008-09. “However, lack of stringent action by both the Centre and States has led to the current situation, putting not only the farmers at risk but also raising the spectre of ecological and health hazards,” says Kavitha Kuruganthi of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture.

Pricing fracas

HT cotton is considered as the successor to BG II. But Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech India, which had conducted trials of the new generation seeds and was seeking GEAC’s approval, withdrew its application for the BG II Roundup Ready Flex (the ‘RoundUp’ contains glyphosate) in May 2016 after the Government brought in the price controls on Bt seeds.

“We have learnt about illegal RRF herbicide tolerant cotton being planted by farmers in key cotton-growing States across India. As early as September 2008, Monsanto had informed GEAC about seeds being illegally produced and sold by spurious and dubious seed producers to farmers without any approvals from Central or State regulatory agencies, in complete violation of applicable laws. Even in August 2017, we sought their intervention on the gross misuse of patented and regulated technologies which may pose numerous other challenges to India’s cotton ecosystem.

“While the necessary applications seeking permissions for environmental release were being reviewed by the GEAC, this request was withdrawn due to the prevailing uncertain operating environment in May 2016. It is a matter of grave concern that some seed companies, while suppressing their real intent of profiteering, are attempting to illegally incorporate unauthorised and unapproved herbicide tolerant technologies into their seeds,” says a spokesperson for Mahyco-Monsanto.

The unapproved HT cottonseeds that are being sold in the country now are erroneously being referred to as BG III seeds, which is not correct, say experts.

The annual seed market for the legally approved varieties is estimated at around 4.5-4.8 crore packets (of 450 gram each) and the area under the fibre crop hovers around 12 million hectares.

Industry response

Atul Ganatra, President, Cotton Association of India (CAI), the apex cotton trade body, feels that the government’s move to cut prices of Bt cottonseeds is a populist one to please a large population of farmers.

“The reduction in trait value will directly impact the technology providers. BG-II has become ineffective as the bollworms have developed immunity against this gene. We may need newer technology to produce more cotton,” Ganatra says.

He adds: “Farmers are unable to get authorised good quality seeds. Last year it was believed that about 35 lakh packets out of the total sale of 4.5 crore packets were unauthorised seeds. We fear there will be 30 per cent rise in such practices this year. This will have an adverse impact on yield and quality of cotton. It is reflected in the prices as India cotton prices are about 10-20 per cent lower as compared to international cotton.”

J Thulasidharan, President, Indian Cotton Federation, says the Government should look at this issue strategically, considering that the cotton chain is the biggest employer in the country.

“Bt cotton has lost its value as the yields and quality of the fibre are declining. At this rate we see India ending up as a net importer of cotton over the next two-to-three years,” he says.

As it takes at least seven years to develop technology, Thulasidharan says the Government should allow MNCs to bring in the latest technology, which could help the textiles industry sustain its competitiveness.

Modus operandi

Industry insiders say most of the players involved in illegal or unauthorised cotton seeds manufacturing are the ginners spread across the regions of Central and North Gujarat.

The seeds are transported through trucks to Andhra Pradesh. There, about 1,500 seed suppliers package and brand it in loose packets of 450 gram.

These packaged seeds are supplied to rural markets in Telangana, Maharashtra and Gujarat. Sources reveal that it is a racket involving top traders, ginners, village heads, local politicians and government officers.

”The seeds are not available directly but through an underground network. The seed distributors don’t sell the seed packets directly but through strong references. Sale to unknown persons is not possible,” says Sopan Yelge, a farmer from Wadner Bhujang village in Amravati district.

Agriculture Secretary S K Pattanayak says: “Most likely it (the sale of illegal seeds) will come down from this season because of the stringent actions initiated. Those who were peddling illegal seeds thought they could get way with it; now they are realising that is not the case,” Pattanayak adds.

Interestingly, the National Seed Association of India expects a decrease in the illegal cotton area.

“The State governments have asserted that they will crack down on the illegal cotton. We expect to gain as farmers go back to legal seeds,” M Prabhakara Rao, the President of NSAI, told BusinessLine.

A seed company executive, however, is sceptical. “They are saying they will keep tabs. But you will never know how the season pans out. They (illegal operators) could well supply the seed,” he says on condition of anonymity.

With inputs from K V Kurmanath, Rutam Vora and TV Jayan

Published on May 21, 2018

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