So, now it is almost official that there is a thriving business in new cotton technology, the Bollgard-II with Herbicide Tolerant (HT) traits, a technology that is not yet officially approved by the government! The Field Inspection and Scientific Evaluation Committee (FISEC), set up at the instance of the prime minister’s office (PMO), has submitted its report saying that the planting of unauthorised Herbicide Tolerant (HT) Bt cotton has soared to 15% of the total cotton area in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Telangana and 5% in Punjab during the 2017 kharif season. Also, that farmers have been paying Rs 1000 to Rs 1500 per packet of 450 grams of seeds, despite an official cap on Bollgard-II seeds pricing at Rs 800/packet. Further, the FISEC findings also reveal that it has not been smuggled from outside the country, but has been manipulated with original varieties of Mahyco Monsanto Biotech Limited (MMBL), that were under trial through the official route, but were later withdrawn due to uncertainties over the trait fees with some licensee companies.
What all this indicates is the following: (a) on a good note, farmers want to have access to new technologies provided they benefit from them, and that they are ready to take risks to procure these seeds even through unscrupulous dealers at a substantially higher price than fixed by the government; (b) on a flip side, it shows the utter failure of the government’s regulatory mechanism and puts the government in poor light.
Now that the PMO is well aware of this, what is the action? Not surprisingly, as a knee-jerk reaction and to show the might of the Modi government, the premises of several breeding companies were raided. One may also see some temporary arrests and/or fines imposed on these unscrupulous players. All this is fine, but, will it solve the issues confronting cotton farmers? Instead of showing the might of the government, it is time to think coolly and rationally in the interest of cotton farmers. And, it is here that the Modi government can learn a lesson from the Vajpayee government. What is this lesson?
The Vajpayee government was faced with a somewhat similar situation in 2001, when they came to know that some farmers in Gujarat had planted Bt cotton without government approval. The natural bureaucratic reaction was to confiscate and burn the cotton crop of these farmers. But, the political maturity of Vajpayee averted that bureaucratic jingoism. He sensed an opportunity for India to emerge as a leader in biotech. He not only approved Bt cotton on March 26, 2002, the first GMO crop in the country, despite opposition from several quarters, but gave the nation a new slogan, “Jai Jawan, Jai Kissan, Jai Vigyan”, extending the original slogan of Lal Bahadur Shastri to incorporate salutation to science. He was very clear that Indian agriculture should be based on science, and that India should lead in biotechnologies to fight hunger and malnutrition.
What have been the results of that bold decision? India officially released its first Bt cotton (Bollgard-I) in 2002, patented by MMBL and multiplied by several Indian companies under their private pact of license fees, etc. This ensured the protection of the intellectual property rights (IPR) of MMBL. In 2006, MMBL introduced Bollgard-II with additional traits. As a result of this bold and wise decision, India, today, has emerged as the largest producer of cotton and the second largest exporter in the world. The attached figure shows that, as against the business-as-usual scenario, India gained from extra exports of raw cotton, yarn, and also from import savings, to the tune of $67 billion, cumulatively, during the period 2003-04 to 2016-17. The farmers gained in terms of extra income and the nation gained in additional foreign exchange earned. And, today, more than 95% of the cotton area is under Bt cotton. All a result of the political maturity, wisdom and boldness of Atal Bihari Vajpayee to take a call on Bt cotton. Alas, since then, neither the UPA, nor the Modi government, has had the courage and wisdom to approve other GMO crops, such as Bt brinjal and mustard, despite the scientific body (GEAC) having given the green signal after due safety checks. This is sheer timidity killing India’s chance to be a global leader in GM technology!
We all know that it is investment and continuous innovations that can ensure India emerging as a global leader in biotechnology. Bollgard-I (BG-I) was the first Bt variety launched by MMBL with a single gene, cry1Ac, that fought against American bollworm (Heliothis Armigera) infestations. The last official approvals for BG-II, with double genes, cry1Ac and cry2Ab, for enhanced protection came in 2006. But, now after 12 years of BG-II, these benefits seem to be fading away. The outbreak of pink bollworm in Maharashtra, last year, may be an indication of that. Alongside better farm practices for BG-II, it maybe time to have BG-III with additional pest resistant proteins (cry1Ac, cry2Ab and Vip3A), along with HT (Roundup Ready Flex (RRF)) traits. This will enhance pest resistance and save on labour costs for weed management with some Glyphosate spraying. Globally, Australia, Brazil and US have gone ahead with this, but India has lagged behind, and very soon, all the gains of the Vajpayee government may be frittered away, if the Modi government does not take the right decision that puts farmers and their right to access the best technologies in the world first. It would also require protecting the IPR of suppliers of genuine innovations. One needs innovators, and not pirates, for genuine products for the long haul.
Can the Modi government fix this and give the green signal to not only BG-III, but also Bt brinjal and GM mustard? Only then can it fulfil the dream of Vajpayee wanting to make Indian agriculture science-based, and it will hopefully propel India towards global leadership in biotech.
-Ashok Gulati & Ritika Juneja. Gulati is Infosys chair professor for agriculture and Juneja is a research assistant at ICRIER