In 2001, when unapproved Bt cotton seeds were planted in Gujarat, the GEAC ordered the crop destroyed. But it got approval for commercial use the year after. In the HT cotton case, Mahyco has withdrawn its application for approval.
The environment ministry cannot extricate itself from the lingerie which the agriculture ministry has got in a twist. With the extensive cultivation of unapproved genetically-modified (GM) herbicide-tolerant (HT) cotton reported in the press, the apex regulator for GM crops, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) has become quite worked up. It has told states to take action under the Environment Protection Act. But what alternative can they offer farmers since there is no legitimate version awaiting approval? The company that owns the HT cotton-seed technology has withdrawn its application after the agriculture ministry conveyed to it through its ham-handed actions that its patent certificate was little more than a wall adornment. On 17 October, the Andhra government set up a committee of three persons to investigate the illegal cultivation of HT cotton and file criminal cases against the violators. This is a U-turn from its position on October 5, when it set up a committee of another set of three persons to study the “efficacy” of unapproved cotton. That notification followed a representation by a group, purportedly, of farmers who said 15% of the state’s cotton area was under unapproved HT cotton. They wanted the state to allow certified seed agencies to produce HT cotton seeds so they were assured of quality.
Bijay Kumar, Maharashtra’s principal secretary, agriculture, says he has asked the Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR), Nagpur to assist its officials in cracking down on the cultivation of the unapproved GM hybrids. The nonchalant behaviour of CICR scientists is hard to understand. Its report of February said six of nine hybrids it had tested were found to have the unapproved HT trait. But it did not inform the state government. In October, when Kumar asked CICR why, he says the institute told him it had not itself procured the samples; they were brought to it by a person claiming to be a farmer, from Nagpur. Even after that, CICR did not make field visits and collect samples on its own. Kumar has asked CICR to guide its officials to the farmer so he can lead them to the suppliers. Kumar is cross with GEAC. He says it’s wrong in saying states can act under the Seeds Act, 2004. States can only take action if the violation pertains to notified seeds, he says, not pre-release GM material.
In 2001, when unapproved insect-resistant Bt cotton seeds were planted in Gujarat, the GEAC ordered the crop destroyed. (The state government did not oblige). But GEAC approved the insect-resistant GM trait for commercial use the next year, so farmers had an alternative. There is no approved version of HT cotton. In July 2016, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco) withdrew its application for approval of insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant cotton by the trade name Bollgard II Roundup Ready Flex. In its letter to GEAC, Mahyco said it had been “eagerly pursuing our application” for approval of the trait since March 2013.
“Regrettably, due to some dramatic recent developments we have been compelled to re-evaluate the pursuit of our application.” It said the “recently proposed changes to licensing of technologies… has alarmed us and raised serious concern about the protection of intellectual property rights…” While technology providers were earlier able to negotiate licence terms, the notification issued under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955, provided for compulsory licensing and fixation of licence fees or trait value.
This not only affected the IPRs of the technology providers but also “stewardship of technologies in accordance with approved bio-safety regulations.” (Stewardship refers to the role of the technology owner in ensuring that seeds supplied by its franchisees are of such purity, and the practices followed by farmers are such that resistance in insects and weeds to the technology is delayed to the extent possible.)
Trait fees were regulated through the agriculture ministry price control order on Bt cotton seed of December 2015. It cut trait fees payable to technology providers by 74%. It issued the compulsory licensing notification in May 2016, but withdrew it five days later. That notification has had a chilling effect.
On October 9, the Federation of Seed Industry of India (FSII) met the environment minister and the ministry’s officials for action against those supplying unapproved HT cotton seed. Based on figures touted in the media, M Ramasami, chairman of Salem-based Rasi Seeds, who also heads FSII, estimates the market share of the pirated seeds at 8% of annual cottonseed sales by weight. At that level, the business is likely to take off. He believes it could double the next year. He has appealed to Mahyco to re-instate its application for quick approval, since Bollgard II Roundup Ready Flex has undergone both levels of bio-safety trials.
When GEAC chairperson Amita Prasad asked Mahyco MD Raju Barwale, who was part of the FSII delegation, why his company had withdrawn the application, he said the business was not viable at the trait fee fixed by the agriculture ministry. This is the consequence of the agriculture ministry pitching so-called nationalist companies against multinationals. But Indian companies have not been unaffected. Ramasami says seed companies have no incentive to produce better hybrids as they cannot charge more for them.
Since the cultivation of pirated HT cotton is a fact that cannot be undone, the government is being told to “legitimise” the technology. Kishor Tiwari, who heads Maharashtra’s mission on farmers’ distress, told The Times of India that 6.5 lakh packets of the illegitimate seed were sold in Yavatmal district of Maharashtra this year. He wants the government “to clean up the mess it has created,” through an “open discussion” with “experts, scientists and activists.” The company that owns the trait apparently has no say in the matter. Tiwari was a strong critic of Bt cotton and blamed it for farmers’ suicides. Other anti-GM activists have been relentless in campaigning against herbicide-tolerance in crops (though farmers want it). This has been their main criticism against another crop, GM mustard. GEAC recommended it for mass cultivation in May, but environment minister Harsh Vardhan has ignored the advice.
Meanwhile, an attempt is being made to pin blame on Monsanto and Mahyco for farmers’ access to HT cotton seed. An e-mail which I received from Chandu Narasingu, director of Guntur-based Surya Seeds, accuses the two companies of releasing HT cotton seed as a business strategy to prime demand for prior to approval. Narasingu says only the company which developed or imported the technology could “either deliberately or unintentionally release it…. It is absolutely their duty to keep it safe.” He adds that Mahyco was allowed to produce seed on 25 acres after bio-safety trials and the seed escaped at this stage. He says GEAC can approve the use of this technology in the farmers’ interests. He asserts the patent is only for the gene construct and not for its expression in plant or seed.
There was no compelling reason for the agriculture ministry to intervene in the cotton seed market. There was no dearth of the seed, nor were prices oppressive. Illegality thrives when minsters behave like monarchs.