Maharashtra’s Principal Secretary for Agriculture has asked the ministry of environment what action the state government should take against cultivators of illegal herbicide-tolerant (HT) cotton and those trading in the seed. “What is the standard operating procedure we must follow?” Principal Secretary Bijay Kumar asked the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) when, he says, it sent a vague direction to the state government last week to take action under the “act/rules/regulations” without specifying the law under which action should be taken. “We expect GEAC to guide us,” Kumar said, as it is the apex body for regulation of genetically-modified (GM) crops in the country.
Kumar said his department was regularly testing Bt cottonseed, but had not so far been informed about the presence of HT trait in them. When pointed out that the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), Nagpur, had in a test report of February said six of nine hybrid samples, including two of a well-known seed company, had tested positive for herbicide tolerance, Kumar sought the report and said he would take stern action. He said he has instructed his department to take samples of unsold Bt cottonseed with dealers, standing cotton crops and cotton bolls.
I told Kumar that I had photographed a field planted with HT cotton in Maharashra’s Yavatmal district in 2013. The farmer had admitted again this year that he had increased the area under HT cotton.
Kumar said that the Prime Minister’s Office had sought comments from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) after the Indian Express newspaper carried a report towards end-September about extensive illegal cultivation of HT cotton in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka. ICAR, in turn, has sought his comments.
That Indian Express report was based on a survey by Delhi-based South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC), which had found evidence of cultivation of illegal HT cotton in central and southern India. In a letter to GEAC, it said the practice was “rampant.” Based on conversations with wholesalers and seed dealers, it estimated that 35 lakh packets of 450 grams were sold during this year’s cotton-growing season, up from 13 lakh packets last year and 8 lakh packets the year earlier. Hybrid seed production takes times, hence the surge in sales this year, Bhagirath Chowdhury, Director of SABC said. Both registered and unregistered seed companies were engaged in the trade, he added.
The marked price of illegal cotton ranges from Rs 1,200 to Rs 1,500 per packet-higher than the government-prescribed price of Rs 800 for Bt cotton. SABC says the illegal trade is worth Rs 472 crore this year. This may be an overstatement as there is acute competition in Bt cottonseed and it is seldom sold at the marked price. But it seems to be a sizeable business.
Officials are aware of the illegality. Apart from CICR, a laboratory of the Telangana government which monitors transgenic crops found the trait in a sample of Bt cottonseed. SABC has annexed that report too to its representation to GEAC.
Amita Prasad, GEAC Chairperson, sought a list of questions from me when asked what action GEAC was contemplating. Her reply is awaited. In 2001, when illegal insect-resistant Bt cottonseed was sold, a year before approval was given, GEAC had ordered the crop to be destroyed, but the Gujarat government did not risk the anger of farmers and took no action.
Unlike Kumar, officials of other states were evasive.
“Agriculture is a state subject. States have laboratories (for testing). It is difficult for me to comment to what extent there is cultivation of HT cotton,” said VN Waghmare, who has just taken over as Director of CICR. “Whosoever is cultivating it is illegal. Biosafety procedures have to be followed,” he added.
CICR’s entomologist Vishlesh Nagrare was reticent. “I have heard like that,” he said when asked whether he was aware of the tests that CICR had conducted. He said a colleague was dealing with Bt cotton and she was on “child leave.”
The illegal hybrids have brand names like Samay Jay Weed Guard, Samraat Veeds Gards, Billa Hybrid Cotton, Rcot TT, Sikander Veeds Gards, Kedar Weedguard, iBoll 5, Pavani Cry-III, Mahashakti RR, Ridham Seeds Sanata Weedguard and Israeli Seeds. The packaging of Bigball-II (a corruption of boll) claims it has Israel Weedguard (Israel does not allow cultivation of GM crops to protect its export market for fruits and vegetables in Europe).
On July 24, from Hyderabad, the Business Standard newspaper reported about the practice. It quoted an official of Telangana’s agricultural commissionerate who had cautioned farmers against buying cottonseed without invoices. The farmers told him they were aware of the risk of crop failure from planting illegal HT cotton, but they had a happy experience with the seed as it saved on weed removal cost. Yields were also high, they said. The official told the newspaper that farmers were usually secretive as they risked time in jail if they grew GM crops illegally.
“I am hearing it is being grown here and there and in the entire country. But we need a report. Decision should be taken by the government of India. We do not have any role to play in the state government,” said T Keshavulu, Director, Telangana State Seed Certification Agency. He said a “preliminary” meeting on HT cotton was held, but declined to share details. When told that the state’s own laboratory had found a Bt cotton brand called Kamadhenu testing positive for herbicide tolerance, he said he “did not know how they are doing it because there are no protocols for testing” as the trait is not approved for sale in India.
But another official of the Telangana agriculture department, who did not wish to be named, said two meetings were held by the Principal Secretary, Agriculture, with state agriculture universities, biotechnologists, seed certification agencies and seed companies. A meeting with seed companies, which is normally held in November, has been advanced to October. They will be told to submit their production plans. The government has decided to inspect their production plots thereafter. “We will test leaf samples and send a report to the central government.”
The official said traders from Gujarat were selling HT Bt cottonseeds “in white cloth bags” in half kg and 1 kg pack sizes. He admitted there was a rise in sale of glyphosate, the weedicide to which HT cotton is genetically programmed to resist. “First, they spray on 3 or 4 plants, and if they do not wilt, they spray it on the rest of the crop,” he said.
Gujarat’s Principal Secretary, Agriculture, forwarded SABC’s representation, which I had emailed him, to the Director, Agriculture, BK Modi, who said “we will lift samples. I have told the quality control guys to lift samples from unsold stocks of Bt cottonseed. First I will have to establish herbicide tolerance.”
In August last year, Mahyco withdrew its application for approval of RRF Bt cotton (Roundup Ready is the brand name of the herbicide glyphosate sold by Monsanto, with whom Mahyco had a joint venture for licensing GM traits. RRF Bt cotton is resistant to bollworms and also to glyphosate). Mahyco had completed biosafety tests, but feared that, if approved, the patented technology would be grabbed by seed companies under another law meant to protect the rights of breeders and traditional farmers. In the process of asserting its intellectual property rights, it did not want to be bogged down with litigation.
There is little point in blaming farmers for growing HT cotton illegally.
Modern agriculture is impossible without herbicides. Europe, which leads the campaign against GM crops, sprays them liberally. A Reuters report of September 14 said that French and German farmers had jointly called on European governments to renew the licence for glyphosate weed killer, saying there was no evidence it was toxic and banning it would severely harm farming. The weed killer licence is due for renewal in the EU at the end of the year.
Even conservation farming, which is supposed to be kind on the environment, is impossible without weed killers. In low-water use direct-seeded rice, post-emergent weed killers have to be applied.
An NSSO survey report of agricultural households released in December 2014 said wage costs were a fifth of the total average cost of cultivation at the all-India level, next only to that of fertiliser. Demand for agricultural labour tends to get bunched during sowing and harvesting. Workers are not easily available at those times. Weedicides are an efficient option.
The planting of illegal HT cotton points to governance failure at the environment ministry. It is fraught with consequences. Seeds with attenuated potencies can help bugs and weeds develop resistance faster. Their sale is unfair on those who abide by the law and go through the grind of conducting biosafety tests and obtaining regulatory approval.
Environment minister Harsh Vardhan has not been taking a decision on another GM crop, GM mustard, developed by a team of Delhi University scientists led by geneticist Deepak Pental with public money, even though GEAC had recommended approval for its release for large-scale cultivation in May. Organisations affiliated to the RSS, the ideological mentor of Vardhan’s party, the BJP, say it should not be approved because it is herbicide tolerant.
The Federation of Seed Industry of India (FSII) has demanded “strict action against perpetrators.” M Ramasami, Chairman of FSII and Managing Director of Rasi Seeds, said, “Such unauthorised sale of cottonseeds with unapproved technologies can put our farmers at possible risk of significant farming losses” as they will not have recourse to compensation from insurance companies.