The Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) has sought a detailed report on the sowing of unapproved genetically modified (GM) cotton and brinjal in Maharashtra.
MoEF Joint Secretary Richa Sharma has written to Ajoy Kumar Mehta, Chief Secretary of Maharashtra, to investigate the matter and take appropriate action.
On Monday, more than 1,000 farmers had publicly sown unapproved transgenic cotton and brinjal in Akoli Jahangir village of Akot taluka in Akola district. Organised by the farmer’s union Shetkari Sanghtana, the gathering was aimed at demanding introduction of Herbicide Tolerant (Ht) Bt cotton and Bt brinjal, which, farmers said, reduces the cost of production.
In India, introduction of GM seeds requires approval of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), a body under the MoEF. Till date, commercial release is granted for Bt cotton, but similar approvals for Bt mustard and Bt brinjal are awaited.
In case of cotton, the first two generations of Bt have seen introduction of ‘Cry1Ab’ and ‘Cry2Bc’ genes from the soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), into the cotton seed, which make the crop resistant to the attack of pink bollworm. The third generation variety saw the addition of ‘Cp4-Epsps’ gene from another soil bacterium, Agrobacterium tumefaciens, which produces a modified protein that allows the plant to withstand herbicide glyphosate. Farmers are not able to spray glyphosate on normal cotton because the chemical does not distinguish between the crop and weed, but the herbicide tolerant Bt (HtBt) cotton remains unaffected by glyphosate.
Like the first two hybrids, Ht Bt has also been developed by the US giant Bayer Monsanto. The company had submitted a proposal to GEAC for approval of its Roundup Ready Flex (RRF), which had genes for insect resistance (Bt) and herbicide tolerant (Ht) in 2013. However, the proposal was later withdrawn by the company because of various regulatory issues with the government.
While Ht Bt is not approved for commercial release, farmers in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra have been surreptitiously planting the crop using smuggled seeds. According to estimates by the Commissioner of Agriculture, Maharashtra, as much as 15 per cent of the 40 lakh hectares of the state had come under this unapproved hybrid. Usage of such hybrids can attract jail term of five years as well as fine of Rs 1 lakh under the Environmental Protection Act of 1989. Action can be initiated under the Seed Act, 1966 and the Cotton Act of 1957.
In her letter, the joint secretary referred to complaints received from Coalition for GM Free India regarding suspected open cultivation of Ht Bt cotton and Bt brinjal in Maharashtra, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab. “I request you to immediately order an investigation and verify the facts on grounds and conduct gene/event specific testing for suspected illegal cultivation of Genetically Modified (GM) crops. Appropriate action may be taken to stop any illegal GM cultivation in accordance with the Rules for the Manufacture Use/Import/Export and Storage of Hazardous Micro Organisms/Genetically Engineered Organisms or Cells (1989),” the letter read.
Confirming the letter, Akola Collector Jitendra Papalkar said they had sent samples of the collected seeds to Nagpur-based Central Institute of Cotton Research (CIRC). “Once the results come, appropriate action will be initiated,” he said.