While the government continues to battle with seed-tech giant Monsanto, as the South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC) points out, it needs to grapple with the problem caused by illegal hybrid cotton seeds being sold in the country. Around 35 lakh packets of these illegal herbicide tolerant (HT) seeds are estimated to have been sold in the country in kharif 2017—since around 4 crore legal Bollgard II seeds are sold by Monsanto, this means illegal seeds are around 8-10% of the total. The illegal seeds, according to SABC, have increased the problem of resisting weeds and are responsible for the big new threat posed to the cotton crop, that of pink bollworms. “Widespread cultivation of substandard and spurious Bt cotton and illegal HT cotton is spoiling the technology as the management of such improved technology needs proper supervision and control … the entire research on improvement in the current technology has been stalled…”, according to SABC. That this should be happening today is unfortunate since Monsanto first complained about illegal HT seeds coming into the country to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) around a decade ago.
What is more interesting, even ironic, is that the government felt Monsanto’s Bolgard II seeds were too expensive and, in December 2015, it came out with a seed price order that reduced the price from Rs 930 per bag to Rs 800 and, within this, it lowered Monsanto’s royalty from Rs 170 or so to Rs 49. Later, it 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 didn’t allow plants/genes to be patented.
Yet, while the government wanted to keep prices low for Indian farmers, as SABC points out, the illegal HT seeds are selling at between Rs 1,200 and Rs 1,500 per pack—if you take the mid-point of this, the seeds are selling at 1.7 times Monsanto’s Bollgard II ones. If farmers were paying so much, it is because they felt the seeds would help increase productivity by reducing the cost of weeding in quite the same manner that Bollgard II did. It is because of Bollgard I and then II that India’s cotton production tripled from 13 million bales in 2002-03 to 35 million bales in 2016-17, and that is what, at one point, made India the world’s largest exporter of cotton. And here’s the irony, had the government not made life difficult for Monsanto, it would have come up with variants of the HT seeds that are now being illegally marketed—and because they have not been tested in India and there is no one to monitor how they are being bred and used, they are creating infestations like the pink bollworm. Fortunately, it is still not too late, and if the government were to stop its attempts at arm-twisting the seed-tech giant, Monsanto and other seed-tech firms would come up with more advanced variants such as Bollgard III.