Though the government has left no stone unturned in its attempt to drive seed-tech firm Monsanto out of the country, it may wish to reconsider its stance in light of the fact that, while it thinks Monsanto’s technology was too expensive—and did not deliver adequate benefit—the country’s cotton farmers are flocking towards GM seed solutions of the type offered by Monsanto. Indeed, they are willing to pay handsomely, even though the new seeds have not been approved for use and are, as a result, causing other problems. The Field Inspection and Scientific Evaluation Committee (Fisec), a body of experts—chaired by the co-chair of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC)—set up at the behest of the PMO for on-the-spot inspection of cotton fields has just found out that around 15% of the seeds being used in major cotton-growing states comprise of unapproved herbicide-tolerant (HT) seeds. These illegal seeds have increased the problem of resistant weeds and are responsible for the new threat posed to the cotton crop—that of pink bollworms. That is why Fisec recommended that all HT cotton seeds be declared “unapproved illegal seeds” and that all confiscated seeds be destroyed.
It is not that HT seeds do not deliver significant benefits in terms of further reducing the costs of weeding, but because they have not been approved by the government/GEAC, they have not been tested locally, nor is there anyone to monitor how they are being bred and used. Indeed, the seeds being sold—by middlemen and often without any proper labelling, to quote from the Fisec report—cost around Rs 1,200-1,500 per packet as compared to Rs 800 for Monsanto’s Bollgard II seeds; in other words, farmers are willing to pay significantly higher sums for HT technology that, under normal circumstances, they know is superior to Bollgard II. Monsanto’s seeds used to cost Rs 930 when, in December 2015, the government lowered the price to Rs 800—within this, it was Monsanto that bore the brunt of the reduction since its royalty was cut from Rs 170 per bag to Rs 49. Later, the government even came out with a royalty cap of 10%—this was dropped because the prime minister was going to the US around that time—and the additional solicitor general even tried to tell the courts that the company’s licence was illegal since Indian law did not allow plants/genes to be patented.
While some have argued that the illegal HT seeds were probably being supplied by Monsanto itself—especially since it had been conducting field trials on these in India—the Fisec study has ruled this out on the basis of the tests done on the illegal seeds. While Fisec says one of Monsanto’s ‘parental lines’ had been used for illegal breeding and that this needed investigation, it added that the tests suggested a couple of local companies were engaged in breeding/selling the illegal seeds. Fisec has also ruled out the possibility of these seeds having been smuggled in from abroad based on their genetic types. In other words, should the government want, it may not be difficult to prove which these firms are. For now, however, with it abundantly clear that farmers want to buy GM seeds as they increase productivity—by lowering the need for labour-intensive weeding in the case of cotton—the government needs to find ways to woo Monsanto to bring its technology and the advances in it. GM technology, for instance, offers new solutions for saline soils, with both drought- and flood-resistance as well.