Farmers guilty in case of illegal GM seeds, but so is govt

Govt right to arrest farmers who plant illegal GM seeds, but what about govt role in delaying clearances for cotton, brinjal and maize? And what action did govt take when 15% of total cotton crop was based on illegal seeds?

Farmers guilty in case of illegal GM seeds, but so is govt
Bt Brinjal is approved for use in various countries, including neighbouring Bangladesh (Express Photo/ File)

There can be little doubt that farmers sowing GM seeds – both Herbicide Tolerant (HT) cotton as well as Bt Brinjal – under the umbrella of the Shetkari Sangathana are breaking the law since, as of now, these have not been approved of by the government. But, while the state police departments have been quick to register FIRs against some farmers – based on a complaint made by the central government’s environment ministry – the central government needs to think about its own role in this sordid tale and how it has prevented Indian farmers from getting cutting-edge technology that farmers in other countries have access to; if farmers then chose to break the law to draw attention to their plight, they are not the only ones to blame.

The important thing to keep in mind is that this is not just a case of farmers – or those associated with the Shetkari Sangathana – being unreasonable while the government is in the right. In the case of Bt Brinjal for instance, it was after seven years of field trials and tests in India that the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the highest body for certifying GM crops, approved its usage as fit for human consumption. But with activists protesting, then environment minister Jairam Ramesh decided to hold back the approval in what he called the ‘public interest’. Bt Brinjal is approved for use in various countries, including neighbouring Bangladesh, and farmers benefit from the need to use less pesticides as well as higher productivity; the fruit and shoot borer, the pest that is controlled by the introduction of the Cry1Ac gene in the plant, affects 30-50% of the brinjal crop and cuts pesticide use by up to 60%.

Given this history, and the fact that the apex body of scientists approved the crop, it is difficult to argue the farmers are in the wrong. And sowing seeds that are not approved is illegal, but given that no minister in the last nine years – Ramesh’s ban took place in 2010 – has had the guts to lift the ban (in the case of the BJP, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch is opposed to GM crops), surely the farmers couldn’t have chosen a more effective way to draw attention to their problem.

Nor was this the only victory of the anti-GM brigade. A team of Delhi University scientists led by former vice-chancellor Deepak Pental developed GM mustard and the GEAC approved this in May 2017 – so this was no longer a foreign company that had developed the technology and Pental was not even looking for royalty since NDDB had funded his research – but the BJP government has not cleared it for commercial years for more than two years now. If decisions that are to be taken on the basis of scientific tests are to be taken on political grounds, why not abolish the GEAC?

In the case of HT cotton, the government’s actions have been even worse. In this case, the government cleared the use of Bt cotton and this resulted in sharp increase in Indian production and even resulted in India becoming the world’s largest exporter of cotton. After the BJP came to power at the centre – Bt cotton was a major reason for strong agriculture growth when Narendra Modi was chief minister of Gujarat – it decided to go after Monsanto, the primary supplier of GM cotton seeds. While few farmers were complaining about the price of Monsanto seeds – at that point, a few of Monsanto’s licensees didn’t want to pay the license fees – the government put a cap on the price of the seeds and, within this, on the royalty that Monsanto could charge per bag; this was lowered again last March. An attempt was even made to cap the royalty Monsanto could charge, but though this was scrapped, the cotton seed price control effectively ensures that anyway. To top the government’s hostility, Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta even told the court that the patent the Indian Patent Office had granted Monsanto was illegal!

Not surprisingly, Monsanto decided to abandon its plans to introduce the next generation of seeds (including HT ones) in India; HT seeds do away with the need for labour-intensive weeding. Meanwhile, however, local seed companies started producing illegal knockoffs of these seeds. While the government initially suspected Monsanto was behind the illegal seeds, a body of experts was mandated to investigate the matter. The Field Inspection and Scientific Evaluation Committee (Fisec) – chaired by the co-chair of the GEAC – for an on-the-spot inspection of cotton fields found that around 15% of the seeds being used in major cotton-growing states comprised unapproved HT ones. Fisec ruled out these seeds being sold by Monsanto on the basis of their genetic signatures and said that tests suggested some local seed firms were involved. The Andhra Pradesh government then conducted its own research and found that several local seed-producing firms were involved and, in March this year, 14 firms had their licenses suspended for a year.

If the central government didn’t take any major action after its own panel found evidence of large-scale selling of illegal knockoffs – against either those growing and selling the seeds or the farmers growing cotton using them – it is difficult to understand why it is pushing for action against the Shetkari Sangathana now. More important, it needs to answer why farmers should be penalized for its failure to approve world-class technology in time. If the government is forced to give an explanation for its anti-seedtech policies, the Shetkari Sangathana has done the country a big favour.

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