As the government has admitted that the first version of genetically modified crop of Bt cotton by US firm Monsanto was not patented in India, top officials at the Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR), Nagpur, say the institute will now produce ‘straight’ varieties on a mass scale this year onwards.
“India is the only country where 95% area comes under hybrids. It is well known that hybrids are not suited for all conditions. Although there was no patent, Monsanto, for some reasons, took the route of withholding information so that farmers would have to buy from them,” Dr KR Kranthi, director, CICR said.
“Of the 83 countries that cultivate cotton, majority of them use straight varieties. Countries such as Australia, China, the US, Brazil and Mexico have 2.5-3 times the yield of India. Moreover, the plant density is 1.1 lakh plants per hectare as against 11,000 plants per hectare in India which is 10 times less. CICR has been advocating newer varieties as this is the only way out for India. All along there has been a mental block on the part of the farmers which we hope shall now be removed,” he said.
CICR has developed 21 varieties using cry1Ac but its commercial launch was held up for want of clearance from Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC).
Since Monsanto does not have a patent for the Bollgard version, Indian scientists were free to use the same cry1Ac gene to develop indigenous varieties and supply them to farmers through government channels. However, the misinformation that Monsanto held the patent for the gene ended all such efforts.
Until now, over 1,600 Bt hybrids have been approved and many of them are being sold despite being priced R900-930 a pack of 450 gram. As against this, the straight varieties cost just R100-150 per kg and can be reused the next year at no extra cost, Vijay Jawandhia, a farmer activist, said.
Kranthi, too, echoed the same sentiment and said that it will take the institute a year to mass multiply the straight varieties. CICR has been attempting to persuade farmers to go in for very high density planting of early-maturing, short-duration varieties at the rate of 44,000 plants per acre for Vidarbha, Marathwada and Telangana which, it says, will help the crop escape bollworm infestation altogether and leave more on the table for farmers.
Jawandhia had first brought the issue to light after he filed an RTI and he also took up the matter with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Union agriculture secretary Siraj Hussain had written to the director general of Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR). The letter requested the agency to examine the possibility of using cry1Ac gene in developing Bt cotton varieties after obtaining requisite permissions from GEAC under the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF).
The agriculture secretary’s letter says it was accepted in a high-level meeting held last month that Monsanto’s patent for the gene in the US had expired in 2012. In India, it did not have any patent at all. “It seems we were not able to take prompt action in making Bt cotton seeds with this particular gene or other genes available to our farmers,” says the letter.
On August 19, additional commissioner (seeds) responded to a follow up letter by PMO, saying that the department of agriculture has suggested that ICAR examine the possibility of developing Bt cotton seeds after getting clearance from GEAC. The second letter says it has been gathered that Monsanto does not have any patent for cry1Ac in India or Pakistan. The latter has, in fact, already approved 31 starlight line varieties for farmers to reuse in their fields. Jawandhia says he intends to write to the PM to ensure that the decision is implemented.