Explained: The GM cotton conundrumhttps://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-the-gm-ht-bt-cotton-conundrum-5823356/

Explained: The GM cotton conundrum

With a few Haryana farmers symbolically defying a government restriction against sowing banned HT Bt Cotton in Hisar, and the government determined to curb its spread, The Indian Express explains the complex problem and arguments that both the sides present.

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Farmers sowing HT BT cotton seeds during their protest against the Haryana government ban, at Hisar. (Photo: Suresh)

What is HT Bt cotton?

Herbicide-tolerant Bt (HT Bt) Cotton is genetically modified crop of unapproved genes which is not permissible in India. Technically, herbicide is like a poison which is used to destroy unwanted vegetation. The technique in the HT Bt Cotton makes the crop resistant to herbicide following modification in genes of the seeds. “Normally, when an herbicide is sprayed, then it destroys unwanted vegetation along with causing harm the cotton crop also. So, farmers use less herbicide in their fields. But with the introduction of HT Bt Cotton, there won’t be any impact of herbicide on the cotton crop while the unwanted vegetation will be destroyed. This will lead to more use of chemicals in fields causing harm to other crops,” says Rajinder Chaudhary, an activist who runs Kudrati Kheti Abhiyan, which is associated with the Coalition for a GM-Free India.

What’s the extent of HT Bt Cotton in India?

In the absence of government approval, production of HT Bt seed is illegal, but farmers say it’s available in those states where its being grown defying the laws. A section of farmers have started sowing its seeds particularly in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana for the past few years. A government panel had found that the HT Bt Cotton was grown in 15 per cent of the areas in these states during 2017-18 while this percentage was 5 per cent for Punjab. According to supporters of HT Bt Cotton, its preferred to reduce the cost of labour as de-weeding is an extremely labour intensive activity involving 40 per cent of the total cost for growing cotton. “It is in this context the herbicide tolerant (HT), the new generation Bt cotton, has attracted the attention of many farmers,” says farmers’ body from Maharashtra Shetkari Sanghatana, whose activists had recently visited Sarangpur village of Hisar to encourage farmers to sow HT Bt cotton in Haryana. “The farmers have felt the impact of HT Bt Cotton in terms of lower costs and reduced crop losses leading to higher production and income,” says the organisation.

What do agitating farmers say?

A section of farmers who demand approval for cultivation of HT Bt Cotton say that they should be allowed to use the latest technologies in the agriculture including genetically modified (GM) crops. They say across the world a dozen GM crops have been approved so far, and these are being grown on over 185 million hectares in more than two dozen countries. However, the Indian government in 2010 had imposed a moratorium, leaving Bt Cotton as the only genetically modified crop permitted for cultivation in the country. “Powered by BT Cotton, our farmers, in just ten years, have made India the biggest cotton producer, and the second largest exporter of cotton in the world,” Shetkari Sanghatana says. The body urges the government to allow the farmers to undertake field trial for HT Bt cotton to further improve their cotton production. A farmer leader Guni Prakash, who is president of a faction of Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) in Haryana, says, “The farmers want improved seeds and technology for better crops.”

What do the opponents of HT Bt Cotton say?

Leading farmers organizations in Haryana like BKU led by Gurnam Singh Chaduni have strongly opposed the idea of HT Bt cotton and Bt brinjal. “The protest by a group is just part of tactics of seed companies which are involved in the production of seeds of HT Bt Cotton and Bt Brinjal. They want to use their puppets to propagate demand for such seeds. Such seeds will cause more diseases among humans and animals apart from causing damage to the environment,” says Chaduni. “The government should probe how seeds of these illegal crops have reached the market.” Activist Rajinder Chaudhary, a former professor at Rohtak’s Maharshi Dayanand University (MDU), says they will oppose use of illegal seeds in fields.

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What is the government’s stand?

This year in February, the Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare had informed the Lok Sabha that the major cotton growing states have been directed to file FIRs, seize stocks and issue show-cause notices to the companies concerned to stop production of HT Bt Cotton. The police have already started filing FIRs against farmers in Maharashtra who have sown the HT Bt Cotton. Recently, over 200 farmers gathered at an agriculture farm of Sarangpur village in Hisar district to defy the law by sowing HT Bt cotton symbolically. Haryana Agriculture and Farmers Welfare Department Joint Director (cotton) RP Sihag visited the farm on Saturday to ask the farmers to desist from sowing the HT Bt cotton till permission from the central government. “This was isolated case in Haryana.”

What next?

Leading farmer leaders have not come in the support of HT Bt Cotton in Haryana yet, hence no major agitation appears on this issue in near future. However, BKU leader Guni Prakash says they will continue with their satyagraha to sow HT Bt Cotton in other areas of Haryana and Punjab. Agriculture department officer RP Sihag says they can’t initiate any action against the farmer concerned till its confirmed that it was really HT Bt Crop. “It may take some time to test the plants of the crop to reach on a conclusion.”